Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Solitary Man

I have a nasty cold right now. After a virus-free year or so it was inevitable that I would catch something eventually, because all around me have been dropping like flies this winter. But instead of resting yesterday I foolishly took it to work with me, whereupon it beat me up a bit and made me come home early.

Before I did that though, just a quick look at the estuary...

Yes, it's that Caspian Gull again.

With the tide rising, the best bunch of big gulls was on the island just north of Coronation Corner, and there amongst them all was the Caspian Gull which I first saw on 22 Jan, in almost exactly the same spot. I had my scope this time, and took a few record shots as it preened. I only had it for a few minutes before something spooked the gulls, with the majority departing downriver. I departed also, sniffing wetly...

I am in my element with this kind of birding. First of all, it's gulls. Always a plus. Secondly, economy of effort. If I were to tot up the time I've spent checking the estuary this year it wouldn't amount to more than a handful of hours I expect, yet I've done pretty well out of it. Thirdly, I am alone, and I like being alone.

When I first got the birding bug as a young man I did a lot of twitching. Wherever large crowds of Barbour-clad men and women hurried awkwardly at dawn along woodland paths and seawalls, and then gathered, steaming and murmuring, in worship of some lost waif, so did I. Sometimes a twitch would be good-natured and relaxed, with the bird easy to see and the viewing unrestricted. Other times, quite the opposite. On such occasions many would allow their desperation to turn them into something quite unpleasant, resolutely oblivious to anyone's interests but their own. I found myself despising such people and their affect on me, and the herd mentality which spawns them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in just a few years the thrill of twitching palled...

I am now a lot older and almost entirely solitary in my habits. If you should encounter me in the field, actually birding, the chances are that I will actively avoid you. Exceptions to this rule are if I know you, or have a good bird to share (I'm not a complete oaf) but otherwise I generally keep to my own company. At this point you may well be thinking "Sad old so-and-so...", and perhaps you're right, but sadder still is the fact that there are quite a lot of us around. Last year for example, I uncharacteristically approached another birder while visiting Staines Res, and received an unmistakeably cold shoulder. Probably he was a decent enough bloke, and assuming he was also a Staines regular it's likely we had a bit in common and could have enjoyed a good old natter. Instead we both missed out.

Saddest of all though is why this happens. Why should a perfectly gregarious young birder gradually become less so with time, to a great extent withdrawing from active engagement with his/her fellow hobbyists? A clue is contained within Jono Lethbridge's recent thought-provoking post, The Echo Chamber. It sounds like facets of our internet age have merely compounded those challenges and difficulties inherent in birding generally, and twitching in particular. We live in a basically selfish world that lacks kindness, and many allow these traits to rub off on them, to influence their thinking and actions, and I suspect that what happens as a consequence is this...

There will be some who put up with it for a while, maybe even join in to a degree, but who eventually realise that they are finding it increasingly distasteful. Arriving at a twitch, they stand off to one side, well away from the scrum. One day, utterly wound-up by some hideous behaviour or other, they walk away and go somewhere else, all interest in the rarity lost. Eventually they don't bother going at all. In time even a hide full of birders becomes hard to cope with, and nowadays they are to be found only where the sky is big and the risk of company small. Are they overly sensitive? Perhaps. But they have my understanding.

And I can tell them this: it'll get worse as they get older!

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Hard Weather

Some of the most spectacular birding I have ever enjoyed has been a consequence of very cold weather. For example, the events of 18 December 2010, recounted in this post. Skylarks that time; at others it has been winter thrushes, Snipe, Lapwings etc, basically whatever species were induced by the cold to move. Today it was Lapwings and Golden Plover...

Despite the recent freeze, locally we were still in a snow-free pocket this morning. So I got up early and ventured to Burton Bradstock to look at the sea for a bit. My theory was that assorted wildfowl might be frozen off their usual freshwater haunts and come piling along the coast in vast and interesting flocks. For at least the first hour of daylight my theory was proved wholly incorrect, so I went home for some breakfast.

While out for a walk around 09:30 I noticed a few straggly groups of Lapwings passing over. Tweets from further W suggested this might be part of a larger movement, so at 10:15 I was back at Burton Bradstock and soon heading along the coast path towards Cogden. En route in the van I'd noted Lapwings and Golden Plovers grounded on the roadside fields W of Burton, and it was quickly evident why. Flocks of both were streaming by, sometimes 40 or 50-strong. It was hopeless trying to count them; birds were passing left and right of me as I progressed, some well inland and some coming in off the sea, having been forced offshore by the relentless, freezing wind. Mostly they were staying quite low too, sometimes appearing in front of me suddenly, and gone just as rapidly.

It was spectacular, but at the same time pitiful. I knew they were heading for weather at least as bad as that which they were trying to escape. Scattered among the plovers were scores of Fieldfares and Redwings, up to maybe 15 at a time, along with a few Meadow Pipits and a single Snipe. By the time I got back to Burton at around 12:15 I estimated 2000+ Golden Plovers and many more (6000+??) Lapwings had gone past in two hours. If someone told me it was double that I wouldn't be surprised. And still they came, though in much-reduced numbers now.

I did get my wildfowl in the end: a little flock of something like 11 Wigeon and 3 Teal E offshore, and a handful of Shoveler plus a couple more Teal trying to find some wobbly water among the reeds of the Burton Mere. Unbeknown to me, the West Bexington Mere briefly played host to a couple of drake Garganey, which would have been a terrific test of my adrenal system had they flown past Cogden!

Golden Plovers heading west. My camera (and photo-skills) no match for the situation...
Beside the coast path at the caravan park W of Burton.

These were the most unpleasant birding conditions I have experienced in many years; the wind was especially vicious. Despite gloves I can honestly say my fingers were numb within 20 minutes, and never recovered. Consequently it was very difficult trying to photograph anything. There was also some mild frustration when I couldn't clinch what looked like a 'small grebe sp' that was too distant for bins. Nevertheless, great birding. But at what cost to the weather-driven travellers...?

Although I haven't posted for a while, I have been checking the Axe Estuary gulls whenever I can, but with little reward. The best I can offer is two adult Med Gulls that were close enough together to just about squeeze in to the same photo...

I never tire of these beautiful gulls. Always a pleasure...

Finally, fishing news...

On Monday Rob and I finally got out on the River Frome at Wool to try for grayling together. Our original plan had been to do this in December, but illness, work and awful river conditions have conspired against us. The stretch concerned closes to coarse fishing on 28 February, so we had just a few days available still, and plumped for Monday. Virtually overnight the temperature plummeted and we knew we were in for a bitterly cold, windy day as the so-called 'Beast from the East'* arrived. I managed three sessions in December and caught at least a few grayling each time, up to 1lb 4oz, so had earmarked three 'banker' swims for Rob to try in order to catch his first grayling. Predictably, in the conditions, not a single bite from any of them.

So we moved downstream a bit, to a stretch I hadn't fished before, and put a brave face on it...

Very cold. I am wearing six layers, and wishing it were more.

Eventually, it happened...

Rob's first grayling. At 1lb 9oz it is also bigger than any I've ever caught!

And that was it. No more grayling for either of us...

We've got a little friendly competition going again this year. Similar to last year in that the biggest of each species that we catch earns a pint, except this year we are limiting it to 'specimen'-sized fish only, so no minnows or tiddlers. Prior to Monday's outing we agreed that to qualify as a specimen a grayling would need to weigh 1lb 8oz or more. Typical. Rob is also winning on pike, with his 23lb 1oz lump. Technically the jammy so-and-so has actually had three twenties this year, as he caught the 23-pounder twice! Clearly, I taught him well...

* 'Beast from the East' = journalistically hyperbolised cold snap originating in Russia.

Friday, 16 February 2018

A Long Shingly Slog

It's been a long time since my last Glaucous Gull. Four years almost to the day in fact. I was still living in Seaton then and twitched this beauty which Tim Wright found on the Axe Estuary on 13 Feb 2014...

Shortly after I took this photo it departed, and I'm pretty sure there are no other published pics.

So when the urge for a long walk unexpectedly took hold of me this afternoon I decided to make my way from Burton Bradstock to West Bexington to see if I could jam the nice white Glauc that's been appearing recently at Bex.

It's a massive, shingly slog from Burton to Bex. Three miles of it. Bird-wise it was dead quiet until just before the West Bexington mere, where the sloping fields had attracted good numbers of small gulls. Mostly Common and Black-headed, but with the odd Med Gull dotted about, maybe six in all. On the distant mere itself I could see a small gang of Herring Gulls. No Glaucous though. I walked on.

Level with the mere now, I checked the Herring Gulls a little more carefully. I couldn't recall if Caspian Gull has occurred at Bex, but needless to say it's constantly on my radar these days. No such luck of course, so I had a quick scan to my right, where there were several Tufties and Shovelers, neither of which (especially the former) are exactly everyday ducks on the Axe patch. Glancing at the gulls again with my naked eye I realised that one of them was suddenly huge and white...

Spot the sore thumb

So, an excellent bit of jam after all. I didn't see the Glauc arrive but assume it flew in from the sea behind me (the mere lies just inland of the beach). After a nice, restful float it had a wash and then flew west for a short way before heading up over the shingle ridge towards the sea...

What a superb gull! Across the mere...
...and away.

Fantastic! Much more successful than I'd expected, particularly as I wasn't even sure that the Glauc was still about. And of course, you can never tire of Med Gulls. An adult and 1st-winter kindly dropped onto the mere for me...

So, that was it really. I carried on to the West Bexington car park, turned around for the return leg. It was a relief to now have the cold wind on my back instead of in my face, but the three-mile walk seemed no shorter. I hadn't gone far when the Glaucous Gull came past just offshore, heading east. I watched it until it was very, very small. It was still going. Apart from a couple of adult Meds on the beach the return journey was uneventful. Just very knackering...

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Axe Caspian Gulls - a Personal History

What a miserable day it is out there. Perfect for sitting indoors and poking away at the laptop. I began this post last night and quickly realised it was going to be a bit of a hefty one. It's a labour of love really, and doubtless inspired by recent success gull-wise. A few posts back I stated that I'd seen a total of nine Caspian Gulls on the Axe. Well, I was wrong. The true figure is actually 11. This was a bit of a surprise to me, and even more so when I realised that I got photos of all of them. So here is an NQS Special: a personal history of Axe Casps, illustrated with some of the most tenth-rate gull photos in existence...

1.  October 2007

The one that started it all. Steve found this 2nd-winter bird at Coronation Corner late in the day. Reviewing the BirdForum posts we wrote at the time is quite telling. Having been misled by what turned out to be a scraggy Herring Gull back in April that year we were very cautious with this bird. And at the time it was only the second or third record for Devon.

2.  December 2009

They don't come much more classic than this gorgeous 1st-winter bird. I found this beauty at the tram sheds and, despite never having seen one of this age, was struck by how delightfully obvious it was. I suddenly realised that Caspian Gulls could sometimes be easy.

3.  February 2010

Another 1st-winter, and a whopper too! Although I was 99% sure it was a Casp I was much more circumspect than with bird number 2. It was only present for a few minutes and I got a series of around a dozen ropey shots, all from some distance downriver. I emailed a selection to one or two more experienced larophiles and among the replies was an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Ian Lewington. Looking at the photos now, I can't see what I was concerned about...

4.  October 2011

The youngest bird I've seen, this lovely 1st-winter is still sporting a few dark 1st-generation (ie. juvenile) scapulars. It was opposite the Tower Hide, from where I got a few pics and a short video with my Lumix before everything flushed.

5.  December 2011

Definitely one of my favourites. This hefty beast was the first Axe Casp to be vaguely twitchable, turning up on four or more dates. At the time very few Devon birders had seen one in the county. I'm pretty sure all the local patch birders got to this one, and a couple from further afield too. This shot nicely illustrates how a Caspian Gull can catch your eye.

It was also the first Casp we could link to another site, having been seen on Portland and at Radipole, Weymouth back in October.

6.  March 2012

Hopefully they're beginning to stand out now, but just in case not, it's the one in the centre foreground. Again a 1st-winter, and a particularly obliging one this. It first turned up in February while I was doing a volunteer stint in the Tower Hide as a local 'expert' for an East Devon Wildlife event. I suddenly became very quiet and unhelpful for a minute or two...but at least a hideful of punters then got an opportunity to humour me by feigning interest in a gull...

This bird was seen on-and-off into April, was well-twitched, and is probably responsible for upping a good number of Devon lists by one.

7.  April 2013

Possibly my all-time favourite, this lovely 1st-winter spent just a short time having a wash and brush-up at Coronation Corner, then headed purposefully away north moments before Steve turned up. The worn, silvery-grey mantle and scaps were almost unmarked, and the head and body likewise. Just unmistakable.

8.  September 2013

Maybe our most interesting Casp due to the rather unfamiliar plumage. It's a 2cy (2nd calendar-year) bird, so basically developing 2nd-winter plumage. But notice how different it is to bird number 9 below, which is nominally only two months older. Steve found it just below Coronation Corner and I was well pleased to be in a position to twitch it. Very educational; it certainly had me looking at the text books afterwards!

9.  November 2015

A bit impulsive, but I twitched this one from Bridport! Steve found an astonishing two Caspian Gulls on the Axe that day - this 2nd-winter and a 1st-winter - and I couldn't resist. The latter had gone by the time I arrived, but this one was more gracious. My views are illustrated by the top photo taken from Coronation Corner; it was okay through the scope though. Meanwhile Ian McLean took the lower shot from the Tower Hide.

This was the second individual we could definitely link with another site - Mike Langman photographed it in Torbay three days earlier.

10.  January 2018

Nearly up to date now, and we're at Tim White's 1st-winter which has put in sporadic appearances since 17 Jan. My impression on first getting decent views of this bird was that it was probably the darkest, most strongly-marked Casp I'd seen, and casting an eye down this post confirms it. Still a cracking gull though.

11.  January 2018

No Axe Casps for me in over two years, then two in four days! Another 1st-winter, it put in a 15-minute appearance on 25 Jan, and might well be the bird Steve had briefly a fortnight or so earlier

So there we are. A bit of a monster post, but I've enjoyed putting it together, and hopefully it will be of some value. I appreciate that a few readers will hardly ever look at gulls with a view to finding something scarce or rare, and one or two perhaps never at all. On the other hand there will be some (I hope) who might just be encouraged by a post like this to have a go for themselves. I really am not an expert, I am still learning all the time. Truly, in many ways I'm a novice when it comes to things larid, I just seem to have been jammy with Caspian Gulls for some reason. My point being that if I can find them, anyone can.

That said, Caspian Gulls are most definitely very scarce in the southwest. When I bother with birding and actually look at gulls I seem to average about one a year, and that's at a site with good access and good numbers of gulls. Not everywhere is as helpful as the Axe in those respects. Even so, logic would suggest that any decent gathering of big gulls must surely deserve a quick look. They are out there!

It's worth mentioning that although my Casp total is 11, due to multiple appearances by three of them I've actually recorded Caspian Gull on 24 dates, and found them for myself on the vast majority.

And don't forget, these are just the ones I've seen. I know Steve can add a few more that I missed.

Finally, I hope that something else comes across from this collection of photos. Yes, Caspian Gulls can be quite variable, but they do appear to have a 'look'. It's hard to define, but the more you study images of them, the more they tend to jump out at you

Anyway, I'll close with an annotated pic of bird number 7. This originally appeared in a previous incarnation of NQS, and highlights a few useful ID tips. Also, because I was lazy and phasing at the time, it constituted the whole of my submission to the Devon Birds Records Committee.

As I said earlier, probably my favourite Axe Casp. A stunner. It really couldn't be anything else.

Friday, 9 February 2018

The Learning Curve

The year is 1981. A summer trip to Minsmere with Mrs NQS. Both of us are relatively new and inexperienced birders, still at the bottom of the learning curve. The Island Mere is covered in ducks, all in assorted manky brown plumage. I can't remember exactly what I wrote in my notebook, but it was something like 'Unidentified ducks, lots'. Yep, I was pretty useless at ducks.

But I was eager to learn, and so persevered with the intricacies of bird identification. And not just with ducks. Fast-forward a year or so to October 1982, and the now very pregnant Mrs NQS and I are on the Staines Res causeway, where I am counting the resident flock of a hundred-or-so Dunlin on the drained north basin. Amongst them is another little brown wader which catches my eye. It looks different somehow, in both plumage and structure. Eventually, with the helpful input of two other Staines birders, I work out that it has to be a Baird's Sandpiper. Rather handily, it stayed until the following April.

Looking back, it surprises me how quickly a novice birder can go from 'useless at ducks' to picking out and identifying a pretty subtle wader in a bunch of very similar but much more common congeners. Probably though, I shouldn't be surprised. After all, I was dead keen, I did a lot of birding, and I made an effort to learn new stuff. Application pays off. Which brings me to the point of this little tale...

Some years ago I got sick and tired of looking at big flocks of gulls on the Axe Estuary and realising that if a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull filled my scope I would not know it. Something had to be done. So I made an effort to learn what to look for, and eventually began to find and identify juv YLGs. In the process I no doubt looked at, analysed and discarded many thousands of Herring Gulls, and not a few Great and Lesser Black-backs. In time I went through the exact same process for Caspian Gull. That exercise is still paying dividends today. Or, to be more precise, yesterday...

A mid-afternoon break at Coronation Corner. Lots of big gulls on the mud and in the river. First scan across them with a scope and there's a Caspian Gull bobbing about in the water, having a wash! It caught my eye as instantly as if it had been painted day-glo yellow. Admittedly it was all rather jammy re timing and whatnot, but I can tell you that a dozen years ago I would have looked right through it. That simply doesn't happen any more.

There's a moral there!

Anyway, it was clearly Tim White's bird from 17 Jan, and this time it hung around long enough for Steve, Ian McLean, and Tim to see. There will be some good photos, but in the meantime there's this one...

Hello again.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

What Am I??

In a comment on the previous post Steve Gale of North Downs & Beyond fame suggested that I am morphing back into a birder again. Looking at very recent NQS output (like the last four posts, say) you'd maybe think so. But am I?

Earlier this evening I went for a 5 mile run. Included in that run were 4x 4-minute efforts at roughly 7 min/mile pace (which feels quite rapid at the moment) with a 3-minute recovery jog between each. This is called interval training. Cool runners might call it 'reps', which is short for 'repetitions'. It is designed to make you faster. And - if you get it wrong - to puke. I've been toying with these structured sessions for a few weeks now. Rather than just 'popping out for a run' I am genuinely trying to make some constructive progress in both speed and endurance.

So I would definitely say that I'm a runner right now. I probably have been for 30-odd years but just didn't know I could still do it.

On Sunday afternoon I went on a fairly leisurely 25-mile bike ride with a mate. Apart from the wet and muddy lanes, and the quarter-mile of thorny hedge trimmings we had to negotiate (don't get me onto farmers' antics, please) it was great, and I cannot wait for spring to herald some sunshine and warmth so I can really enjoy my cycling again.

So, although my poor, neglected winter bike is in dire need of a deep clean I would say that I am very much a cyclist still.

A runner and a cyclist.

The recent proliferation of white-wingers inspired me to take a proper look at the Axe Estuary gulls whenever I was over Seaton way. The upshot of that little endeavour has now taken up four posts...and I still haven't found a Glauc or Iceland Gull! I really like gulls. Probably I always will.

For some reason I've not been quite so inspired by the Hawfinch thing, but even so I would say that I am still a birder...

A runner and a cyclist and a birder.

And how chuffed I was when Rob sent me photos of his first 20lb pike yesterday morning. It genuinely made my day. And then this morning he sent me this...

Rob's message read: "Guess how big!"

Big landing nets always seem to make a fish look smaller than it is, so my reply was initially: "Surely not another 20?" And then "No. Must be 15 though".

Eventually this arrived...

Rob is famous for his sartorial indifference anyway, but I would imagine he cares even less when the real star of the photo weighs 23lb 1oz!

Yes, the jammy so-and-so has just caught two 20lb pike in 24 hours. He also had a smaller one just under 9lb, all of them falling to tactics that are far from mainstream when it comes to piking. Three bites. Three landed fish. I think his persistence in developing a different approach over the last two winters has been both vindicated and well-rewarded!

When I get enough spare time I will once again be after the pike, and if the rivers fine down from their somewhat swollen state before the end of February I shall be after the grayling too. So yes, I am also still an angler.

A runner and a cyclist and a birder and an angler.

So, to pick up Steve's original point, personally I feel I will always be a birder, and hopefully all the other things too. But I find it impossible to pursue all my interests, at the fairly high level of application that I find necessary, all of the time. Each will wax and wane in due season. I am comfortable with this reality. In fact I like things this way. Long may that be true...

Ooh, I almost forgot. Guess what I did when Rob sent me his latest pike photos. Yes, that's right, I made a collage...

Left: 28 Nov 2017 - 23lb 8oz   Right: 30 Jan 2018 - 23lb 1oz
And yes, they are the same fish!
It was a tiny disappointment to discover that Rob's second twenty wasn't a new one for us, but on the other hand it was nice to have shared it, so to speak. Still, it had travelled quite a long way from where I caught it.

So yes, I am a runner, cyclist, birder, angler...and detective. But probably not all at once.

Monday, 29 January 2018

This is Getting Silly...

Once again lunchtime found me beside the Axe Estuary at Coronation Corner. I'll confess, this wasn't my first time beside the river today, but an earlier scoot along had been fruitless. Good numbers of big gulls, but mostly a little too distant for comfortable viewing with bins through a windscreen. Out we get then, scope up, scan. Zip. Back inside, sarnies out, World at One, munch...

Gulls were trickling in constantly, which definitely warranted another scoping before I headed off. And yes, in keeping with current stupid amounts of jam, right there in the middle of the flock was a Caspian Gull.

Straight away I recognised it as Tim's bird, and just as straight away it did the off, flying upriver to land bang in front of the Tower Hide. It took me about ten minutes to get round to the hide, and there it still was, really close. Annoyingly, the moment I got the camera out the bird flew back across the river, but at least I managed a few very distant shots of it...

I'll admit, it doesn't exactly stand out like a sore thumb at this angle in the gloomy light

By this time I'd alerted Steve, who once again kindly put the news out, and in the distance I could see a birder climbing out of his car at Coronation Corner. So, back I went...

It was Mark Bailey from Torbay, who'd been conveniently near at hand visiting the Glossy Ibis at Seaton Marshes. It's always a pleasure to share good birds, and Mark and myself and another birder who'd just turned up had great views as it stood alone on the nearby mud. A couple of shots...

Conditions were still very gloomy. I know a 1st-winter Casp is hardly a kaleidoscope of colour, but without sunshine it's hard even to see what's grey and what's brown.

At that moment the gathering clouds emptied a lot of water onto us and we retreated. I hung around though, and following the rain came a gap in the weather. The sun even emerged. The Casp was still present, and now quite active amongst the good-sized flock of gulls at the water's edge. I got some more photos...

Compare the Casp with those 1st-winter Herring Gulls all around it. What a difference a bit of sunshine makes. Especially when the water is reflecting a nice dark rain cloud for a bit of contrast. Despite how obvious it looks in this series of shots, I'm pretty sure its mantle and scaps are the darkest, most heavily marked I've yet seen on a Casp, with less contrast between them and the coverts than I'm used to. So not a textbook individual, I would say. But still a Casp I think, and still beautiful!

Just after 15:00 it upped and went, heading away S over the town. About ten minutes before that, Julian Thomas turned up. Perfect timing. So this visit was approximately an hour and 45 mins. By Axe standards that is a long stay!

Finally, Mr Collage presents his latest offering. Tim's on the left, today's on the right...

No question, it's the same bird

So then, a good day. A good day for bumping into scarce gulls. A good day for bumping into birders I haven't seen in a while. And a good day for piking...

This morning, before all the gull stuff, Rob got in touch. A bit later he sent me some photos. Here's one...

Rob's first twenty! Bit of a 'scraper' at 20lb 2oz, but what a lump! I was nearly as chuffed as Rob!