Thursday 31 December 2015

The End of Year Post

I'm glad not to be outdoors right now. Squally rain is lashing against our little conservatory like a breaking wave. 2015 has played itself out in this manner for the last several weeks and, along with everyone else, I am ready for a new tune please.

That refrain will begin tomorrow. January 1st is a nice date for new starts, and many a crisp notebook has been cracked open on that day. I'm not sure that I'll bother with a notebook tomorrow - for some reason these days I'm not so fussed about careful recording - but I will be out on the new patch nice and early. I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully there'll be a blog post about actual birding afterwards.

The end of a year is a great time for wallowing in nostalgia. Motörhead frontman Lemmy died the other day. The news took me instantly back to June 1977 and a very long walk from the Music Machine in Camden to my home near Wembley following a Hawkwind + Motörhead double-bill. A warm midsummer night, ears ringing, feet sore, university imminent, the future an unknown. Ah, such an innocent...

Right, that's enough of that.

Many birding bloggers compile a review of the year type post about now. For me though, the biggest event of 2015 was moving from Seaton in Devon to Bridport in Dorset. Only 18 miles or so, but a fairly big thing nevertheless. Once the dust had settled there was the consequent search for a new patch, now sorted of course. Birding-wise, the majorest thing was a cracking week on Scilly with our good friends the @birdingprofs. Great company, great birding, great surroundings. Incidentally, if you were over there this year as a relative Scilly newbie, and found yourself looking for Little Buntings in the 'Standing Stone Field', maybe you wondered why it was called that? After all, there were quite clearly no standing stones present. Well, here's why...

Yes, that field once looked like this (in 2008) - 'Standing Stone' is an ancient colloquial name for Sociable Plover

Anyway, that's 2015 done. 2016 awaits. It's only a calander-based notion I know, but one cannot help being a little excited at the prospect of that 'new start' approach to upcoming stuff. Let's get to it...

Oh, and finally, despite vows to the contrary in yesterday's post comments, here is a photo of me and my bike...

...or, technically, trike.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

A Blogger's Tricks

If this were a birding blog and I was one of those bloggers who goes birding every day, NQS readers could be fed an unremitting diet of birding posts, one after another. Good days, bad days, average days. Especially there'd be average days, of course. Lots and lots and lots of them. At school I learned that there are three types of average: mean, mode and median. This is a mathematician's wheeze to try and make 'average' less boring. Each describes 'average' in a different way, and such a blog would have to employ all three on a rotating basis to inject even the teeniest bit of interest into a steady stream of bog standard birdy outings. Regular readers would find themselves absolutely gagging for a rarity to ple-e-e-e-ease liven things up...

Aren't you glad I'm not really much of a birder?

I'm not even a naturalist. Not really. I'm pretty bad at butterflies, almost hopeless at moths, useless at dragonflies and even worse at plants. Admittedly I can do a lot of fish, but picture me on a sunny day beside the river/lake/gravel pit, with my knowledgeable friends the botanist and the lepidopterist, and who looks clever quickest? Eh? Exactly.

So, not many birds; no other easily observable natural history. That's why for NQS I have to resort to other tricks.

Cycling is one of those tricks. I can think of a few reasons why I might want to read about a blogger's cycling exploits.
  • As long as he wasn't too young or inhumanly fit I might seek a little inspiration to galvanise me into doing something about my bulging gut.
  • If he was fat and slow I would definitely read all his cycling posts in order to gloat smugly at my athletic superiority.
  • Of course, a blogger who cycled to his birds would be a must-read.
  • Also, a blogger who cycled to nice places and took photos...
Re the first two, sorry, but deciding whether I am too young, inhumanly fit, fat or slow is a subjective matter to be judged only by the reader...but I can unequivocally demonstrate that I do cycle to my birds and do cycle to nice places and take photos...

April 2014. Nipped over to Exmouth for this Glaucous Gull

Out in yesterday's sunshine, and up to the Hardy Monument. The view south takes in Chesil Beach, the Fleet and Portland, but as that was all shrouded in murk here's the view east. Incidentally, 'Hardy' not as in Dorset's own Thomas Hardy but as in Trafalgar's own "Kiss me, Hardy!"

Also yesterday: West Bay, the western end of the promenade. The place was exceedingly busy for a December Tuesday. I can never quite fathom why West Bay is so popular. The seafront architecture is rivalled only by Seaton for utter direness, and the chips are mostly awful. Mind you, there are usually motorbikes to look at. And boats. For some I guess West Bay is therefore Nirvana.

Sunday 27 December 2015

Rejoicing in Mediocrity

When it comes to belts, you can be sure that Mo Farah and Chris Froome own the 'one-groove' variety. That's because they are immesely fit athletic machines at the top of their game, and they win big, big things that you and I can never aspire to. That said, I wonder how happy they are? After all, if you or I spent a weekend blobbing out on the sofa with endless cake, well, we might feel a bit guilty. But if they did that it would leave their intricately planned 'taper' in tatters and cost them very dear. Whereas we might be able to salve our conscience with a brisk walk and thinking half-heartedly about 'cutting down a bit', they would instantly need a 6-month detox and 2-year rebuild.

Years ago, when I did a bit of running, I never, ever aspired to win. Why not? Because I wasn't a deluded idiot; I knew my capabilities. But I could still set reasonable goals that were achievable, thereby giving me just as much potential satisfaction as (and maybe more than?) the fast blokes who realistically could win, and frequently did.

The principle applies equally to birding. We cannot all have an east coast patch or live on Fair Isle, and many of us are never going to tally even 100 species in a year. Mediocre at best. And yet, a mediocre patch is still capable of producing genuine moments of enormous satisfaction, even joy. Take Staines Moor. Inland, not much water, overflown by Jumbo jets every three seconds. Yuk. A chap called Lee Dingain plugs away there and recounts his exploits on his blog Almost Birding. The subtitle - A Naturalist Struggling to Survive in Birdless Surrey - says much about the day-to-day reality of such a patch, yet last autumn he found a Barred Warbler there and had a fly-over Black Stork! Add in Wryneck and Great Grey Shrike and suddenly even mediocre sounds hugely appealing doesn't it!

And going back to the athletic perspective for a moment, what about cycling? For my age I'm possibly in the top 25 percentile, potential-wise. Again, never a winner. But, according to the mighty Strava my mediocrity is sometimes less mediocre than that of others. For a mildly competitive person like me this is a source of regular satisfaction. There are plenty of cyclists (whom I've never met, incidentally) whose names are frequently vying with mine for higher ranking on our local climbs. None of us is going to be a Strava 'King of the Mountain', but that does not detract in the least from the joy we derive in our mediocrity!

A couple of days ago I wheeled out my bike, pumped up the saggy tyres and wobbled forth. It was pitiful. Several weeks of inactivity has left its mark. Determined to know the worst I headed straight for Eggardon Hill. The summit peaks out at around 800ft, and it's well over 600ft of climbing in all, a nasty portion of it steeper than 15%. According to my Strava records I have been up it 24 times.  Friday's ascent was my slowest ever. My poor heart maxed out at 170 beats per minute - a rate it sees very, very rarely these days. Here's the sorry data...

Latest effort is over there on the right, at the

My best ever performance up Eggardon Hill apparently places me 177th out of 766 Strava users who have climbed the beast. Friday's effort would put me equal 441st. Supreme mediocrity indeed. Mind you, if I adjust the figures so that just my age group is included things look altogether different...

...until you realise that I am one of the very youngest in the category!

Anyway, enough of this laughable competitiveness. Should know better really. And, of course, I do! I suppose it's obvious - like any mature person I know that the real joy in mediocrity comes from simply doing, seeing, being... What could give greater cause for rejoicing than the sheer pleasure of gasping desperately to the top of a hill where the wind is blowing so hard that you have to lean your bike at this kind of angle to prevent it from hurtling across the road...

Behind the camera is an immensely happy bloke, beaming from ear to ear and jigging up and down in little paroxysms of infinite joy

Monday 21 December 2015

Patchwork Challenge

So here we are, easing towards the end of yet another year. As I get older, this annual inevitability takes on ever greater significance. For example, thinking back to my first visit to Scilly in 1984 gives me some very vivid memories, yet it was a massive 31 years ago. In 1984 my younger son hadn't been born and the roads were still full of Maxis, Metros and Marinas. If, as a ten year-old boy, I had asked my grandad what he was doing 31 years earlier he would have reminisced about the year 1938 when he was a career soldier stationed in married quarters on Malta with his wife and small children, little knowing what was coming their way in June 1940. Now that is pukka history with a big H - the kind of stuff entombed in musty old books illustrated with black and white photos - and for some reason I find this pretty sobering. Yes, time marches ever onward...which is why it's absolutely crucial that I get involved with the Patchwork Challenge before dementia gets me.

I did it once before, in 2013 I think, on the dump of a patch that I was saddled with back then, but now I have a nice new patch. Here it is, all neatly shaded in green...

The Cogden Patch, all 1.164 km² of it
Life recently has been rather full, and I've noticed the birding urges are a bit feeble. So I'm hoping a fresh challenge based on the friendly competition that PWC provides will get me out and about a bit. I am looking forward to January 1st.

Of course there is always the possibility of a nice find. The next pic was taken (by me) less than 25 miles from Cogden, and I can only imagine the adrenaline rush experienced by the birder who stumbled across this beast, perhaps during a casual stroll around his/her regular patch.


The Winter Expansion

In an ideal world belts would come without any holes. Yes, in that world what would happen is that you'd go into the belt shop, they would measure your fat-free waist and then punch a single hole in your custom-fitted belt. Sorted.

It would be the only hole your belt ever needed.

However, in the real world belts come with loads of holes. If you thought this was so that belts can be mass-produced to cover all sorts of sizes you'd be wrong. It's because one person can be all sorts of sizes! After a belt has been worn a few times it develops a little groove where the buckle edge sits, and the favoured hole gets opened up a bit. Pretty soon it's easy to see exactly where the belt is regularly buckled. But on a well used belt of some vintage it may not be so easy to tell, because several holes have been opened up a bit and there are several buckle-edge grooves. It must be said: this is the belt of a normal person. Only athletic automata own one-groove belts, and they are far from normal.

Owners of multi-groove belts probably experience the Winter Expansion. I know I do. Frankly it's pretty depressing when you grudgingly have to give in to the next hole out. It feels like a defeat, a failure. Well, it should do, because it is. You've been defeated by the surplus calories of indulgence that you've failed to shift. That is, 'shift', as in 'work off'. Like many a multi-groove belt owner I love chocolate, cake, etc. Especially cake. And chocolate. In the spring, summer and autumn I can get away with it by simply going out cycling a lot. Come winter, and the cycling reduces but the consumption does not...

This photo was taken back in the summer from the top of Eggardon Hill - you can see the trig point on the right. In the distance is Lyme Bay. It truly is a superb view. That van is just about to head down a hill I have ridden up many times. It's quite a long hill, relentless and steep, going to about 15% in places, and generally takes me 12-14 minutes to climb. This photo is pure motivation. Next summer I want to be cycling up it again. Often. I want to see that view, to feel I've earned that view. I want to revisit those inner belt holes. I must. Because the alternative is unthinkable...

A wobbly descent into elastic waistbands. No-o-o-o-o-o..........................!

Sunday 20 December 2015


I think I've just earned a pile of Brownie Points. Our wedding anniversary is 9 August, so, almost eight months ahead, I've just booked a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant in deepest Devon. Mrs NQS is a sucker for fine dining, so the news was very well received. Like a bloke who's just played a shrewd hand of cards I could sense a big stack of points being pushed my way. Excellent.

As a younger man I would have said derogatory things about fine dining. Namby-pamby little plates of pretentious art food, I might have said, sneering. Give me a plateful of proper grub, I might have added. Well, that was before my elder son grew into a chef, and I actually tried some of that pretentious art food...


This illustrates a common trait in human thinking. So often we seem able to hold very firm opinions on things we know little or nothing about; on people we know little or nothing about. For some reason we can't see anything wrong with it, yet surely this must be where bigotry is born? For example, only a bigot would think ill of bird 'photographers' who completely obliterate the viewing slot of the only hide from which the rarity is visible by filling it shoulder to shoulder all day long. Don't call them selfish oafs. No. Try it first and then judge, I say.

On a different note...

Once in a while, in Blogland, you see a post appear and then when you look again it's gone. Deleted. [Sometimes that happens to a whole blog, but we're not going there] Perhaps, after a re-read, the blogger feels the post is a little inflammatory or opinionated or something, and thinks better of it. I've done it myself. Is this a good thing? Or is it better to just leave it, and hang the consequences? Personally I think it's a good thing. There are people out there who don't give a monkey's what they say, how they say it, or what effect it has on others. Some might call them 'uncompromising' and 'fearless'. I would use other adjectives, but because I don't want to delete this post I won't.

I suppose I must apologise once again for yet another blog post sans birdy content.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Sticking Up For Twitter

I just want to revisit Twitter for a mo. The recent social media post led to a bit of feedback which I think is worth attention.

Twitter gets flack. Here are a couple of typical criticisms...

A lot of folks on Twitter want to tell you the kettle's boiled, the toast is burnt or that their guppy has just given birth...and so on ad nauseum. The suggestion is: if you've got nothing to say, why say anything? A good question. If you're interested in trivia like this you can follow such micro-diarists; if not, you don't have to.
Some tweeters are too political. Stop press! People have opinions! Shock! Horror! To follow someone is not obligatory. Don't like their posts? Don't follow.

When people follow me on Twitter I will at some stage take a look at what they post. If I think it will interest, amuse or educate me, etc., I will follow them back. Some individuals with a Twitter account post nothing at all. Evidently they see Twitter for what it basically is - a source of digital reading material - and tap in to what interests them. Twitter is really just so many blogs with lots and lots of tiny posts. Reading any of it is a conscious choice. Interacting with any of it is a conscious choice. However, to label the whole thing as trite, superficial rubbish is entirely missing the point.

Another criticism is that Twitter only gives you 140 characters per post. What can you meaningfully say in just 140 characters? Fair question. There are (arguably) some examples below.

I posted this on Saturday, 7 February. It was kindly retweeted, thereby reaching a wider audience. By the end of the same day my unwanted publications had not only found a new home, but had also been picked up by relatives of the new custodian who coincidentally happened to be in the Seaton area that day, and were heading his way.

Read this sequence of posts from the bottom upwards. Notice that 140 characters wasn't enough in this case, but it ain't rocket science to use two posts if you need to! Again, thanks to retweeting I was put in touch with relevant interested parties and ended up satisfied that my random encounter with an unfortunate Otter had sent data which might be of use to where it should go. Thank you, Twitter.

Everyone needs a good coffee shop. And a good coffee shop needs custom - especially when it's in the seething metropolis (not!) that is Seaton. Twitter is a great way to endorse a watering hole.

This one is nothing more than a micro-blog post. Imagine it on NQS, with more words. Designed merely to induce 'mmm, look at that' and 'lucky beggar!' type responses. And what's wrong with that?

A handy tip for the newly long-sighted, which of course is (at some stage) almost all of us over 40. Please consider a tweet like this as part of my NQS public service mandate.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Of Other Common Birds...

Dear Mr Scilly
Yesterday's post disgusted me. Beautiful living creatures callously referred to as 'dross', as if they were so much worthless scum! You don't deserve to have such a wealth of wonderful birds to slowly and laboriously pick through in pursuit of your pathetic '24-carat gulls'. How vain. How shallow. Each and every seagull is of equal merit in my book, because they all look exactly the same.
Indignantly yours
R. Stroker

Yes, Robin is dead right, generally when it comes to gulls I am a vain and shallow ingrate. BHGs, Herring Gulls, etc. are just so much sawdust in the lucky dip barrel. However, I'm really not as bad as that sounds. From time to time I can get easily as much of a buzz from common birds as the rarer kind. One of those times is when they are in spectacular numbers. Like five years ago...

18 December 2010

Parting the curtains this morning revealed a couple of inches of snow. It looked so fantastic I was inspired to head out on foot, and was striding towards Black Hole Marsh by 08:00. I expected the sky to be full of birds on the move, but no, it was initially rather quiet. Heading up the river I spied a Ruff with some Lapwings, but little else to excite. The scenery was great though - here's a shot looking SW across BHM towards Seaton...

Gradually I became aware of calling Skylarks, and by the time I reached Colyford had seen about 300, mostly moving in a direction between W and SW. A quick check of Colyton WTW revealed the continuing presence of the popular wagtail that might be Eastern Yellow. The big field across the road looked highly dead, but I thought I should at least walk the footpath. A good decision. Lo and behold...

In total I saw 5 Woodlarks, including this one prodding about in the base of a hedge
Although the field had initially seemed empty I could see a few Skylarks shuffling around in the snow too, and immense fluke had me looking in exactly the right spot at the right time to see what appeared to be a Lapland Bunting fly briefly out from behind a weedy tussock. A careful approach confirmed my suspicions and gave me reasonable views but, being with Skylarks, I couldn't get close to it.

By now though Skylarks were becoming quite a distraction - flocks were dropping into the field, stopping for a short time, then moving on, relentlessly westwards. Scanning towards the coast I could see other parties crossing the valley further south. The notebook was busy. Phil joined me for a bit, then went to check the sewage works. Meanwhile I couldn't tear myself away from the field. By the time Phil and I headed home shortly after 11:00 for a late breakfast the Skylark tally had reached a staggering 11,250 - a spectacle I don't expect to see again in a hurry!


A cold weather movement of eleven thousand plus Skylarks! It was fantastic! And writing this in 2015 I can safely say that no, I certainly haven't seen anything like this spectacle again. A spectacle imprinted just as indelibly on my memory as any 24-carat gull, and more so than some!

Friday 11 December 2015

Of Dross...

For the last three days I've been working in the Seaton area and have arranged things so I could have my lunch beside the estuary. The gull presence has been quite good, but despite my best efforts I have failed to find a Casp or better. Even so, it's been a pleasure to sit there, munch my sarnie and grill the gullage...and I suppose that's another benefit of self-employment.

Yesterday I lowered the window and took this shot...

Left to right: dross, 1st-winter Med Gull, dross times three
As the caption says, a lovely 1W Med Gull. 'Dross' is a pejorative term, I know, but is kind of appropriate in the context of gull watching. When metal ore is put through the smelting process, dross is what rises to the surface of the molten mass. It comprises the impurities, the rubbish that you want rid of. Imagine if I could sit there munching my sarnie and all the dross was magically cleared away for me, leaving just the 24-carat gulls behind. I would raise my bins to the two birds remaining, and gasp with delight...

Though in reality they would both be Med Gulls. This would happen so often that I might begin to wish Meds too could be classified as dross. Hmmm, I already know the consequences of that. Apart from about once every month or two I would dab away the butty crumbs and find myself looking at an empty estuary. And where's the fun in that? I guess there's a familiar truism in this fantasy: if something is too easy it probably won't be satisfying.

Actually I really enjoy picking through the dross. It can be almost therapeutic, there's a challenge to it, and fairly often there's a nice reward. I only wish I could do it quicker, so I might hurry back to work all the sooner...

Thursday 10 December 2015

Gainful Employment

What should a birding blogger blog about? If there is frequent birding we have the option of a million posts of the 'I went here and saw this' variety. But unless the blogger is the Fair Isle warden, hands up who wants that? Very few I'll bet. Personally I like a blog to to be a little window into someone else's world, and I mean that in the broadest sense. Not just a list of day to day events, I want to know what the blogger thinks, what motivates him or her, and so on. Ultimately it's not just the shared interest that draws me to certain blogs, but also the person. I kind of hope that NQS readers might feel similarly. In fact, they must do, because they certainly aren't reading this stuff for a daily dose of vicarious birding thrills!

So, in keeping with the above, here's a little glimpse into my world...

The reason there's been so little birdy content on NQS lately is because I am having to work. When I got back from Scilly in mid-October it started to rain, and didn't stop for at least six weeks. My job is weather dependant, so this meant I couldn't work. Now that we are finally getting the odd dry day I am compelled to earn money. I have earned money ever since I dropped out of university aged 19. My employment history is pretty unremarkable, but does include a 23 year spell with Kodak Ltd in Harrow. Most of those years involved shift work, which sometimes came in dead useful for birding, in that I could often be out and about midweek when most of my birding mates were in the office. Much grippage! On the other hand, shift work occasionally provoked in me a rather pathetic desperation. Take October 1987...
  • 12-hour night shift.
  • Huge drive to East Prawle in Devon.
  • Use the approximately five minutes then at my disposal to search for a Black-and-White Warbler.
  • Dip.
  • Huge drive back to Harrow.
  • 12-hour night shift.
  • Crawl home and die.
Anyway, in late 2002 I grabbed a redundancy opportunity with both hands, retreated to Seaton, Devon and began a new career as a window cleaner. I built a round, initially by canvassing, and soon had a good number of customers whom I visited every month, six weeks, two months or whatever they wanted. With window cleaning you don't have all your eggs in one basket, so if someone moves, dies or drops you, or if you take a dislike to a customer, losing them is no big deal. And anyway, the next new customer is never far away. I have never advertised and my van is not sign-written, yet still I find myself having to turn away potential new jobs. I sometimes wonder, do the unemployed know about window cleaning? Because there's heaps of work going begging! Yes, you need to be reasonably fit, but not much else is required. I do it the old-fashioned way, off ladders, but even here only a modest head for heights is necessary; I go up to first floor, max. And not on any old ladders. No, no! Mine are special window cleaner's ladders...

One of my ladders in action today
I have two like this (3.5m and 4.5m) and a diddy one of about 7ft. They are brilliant. More expensive than yer builder's type, but a thousand times safer for window cleaning, You can see how versatile they are in the pic... I take a step back and dispassionately look at this post so far, I am slightly disturbed to realise that I actually posed my ladder today. And photographed it. And that I appear to be bigging up window cleaning as a career choice. NQS blog material is spiralling downwards into the realm of barrel-bottom scrapings. Aagh!

Better talk about birds then. Window cleaning is great for birds. I once saw a Hoopoe actually from my ladder. Yes, that one in the pic. I've also had Red Kite and Yellow-browed Warbler. But my most exciting work bird was the Axe patch's first Montagu's Harrier, which flew past me as I got out of the van. My customer must have been a bit confused to see me leap back in and squeal off down the road in pursuit...

Sunday 6 December 2015

Social Media - One Man's Journey

Hands up who remembers Friends Reunited? You know, that Iron Age social networking site where people in early middle-age unwisely hooked up with old flames and gave themselves a load of marital grief. Launched in 2000, I was briefly a member and 'reunited' with a handful of boyhood buddies with whom I exchanged one email apiece. No, it's impact on my life was hardly dramatic.

Then there was Facebook. When our younger son went travelling for a couple of years he was adamant that the best way to keep abreast of his adventures was to 'friend' him on Facebook, so I reluctantly opened an account and did so. I hardly ever posted anything on it, and didn't really grasp how to use it properly. Too much jargon, it made me feel old and out of touch. The final straw came when its sidebar ads kept encouraging me to seek a young Russian wife. My account now has an empty 'timeline' and I am 'friend'less...which is how I like it!

Twitter appeared just nine years ago and initially I saw no reason to investigate. However, two or three years back I succumbed to curiosity and was pleasantly surprised. Subsequently I have found quite a few reasons to like it. In case Twitter is still a distant planet to you I'll briefly explain how it works. You simply compose a post of 140 characters or less and then publish it. You can attach photos or video, but doing so uses up some of your 140-character allowance. In a nutshell that's all there is to it. Do that and you've successfully 'tweeted'. Congratulations.



What's the point? you might ask. I certainly did.

Well, the answer depends on who you are. If you're a politician you might answer that the point is to preach your manifesto and gain acolytes. A business will probably see Twitter as so much free advertising. And an average bod like me may see it as an opportunity for some gentle micro-blogging, and then, when he gets back into macro-blogging, as somewhere to publicise his >140-character posts. So you'll appreciate by now that all tweeters have a common requirement: an audience. And this is where 'followers' come in...

'Following' on Twitter
If you 'follow' someone who posts on Twitter, you receive all their tweets. I follow all sorts, from the Met Office through Plumberparts to Bridport Events. Those three illustrate some of the variety available, but of course there are also millions of individuals to follow. Some are birders, and I follow a few of them too. All good, and following a well chosen bunch of tweeters will provide you with a wealth of information, amusement, chit-chat and food for thought - whatever you want really. I'm still on the learning curve here, but that's basically my reason for becoming someone's 'follower' or - cringe - 'tweep' (look it up). On the other hand, I can't help thinking that one reason some folks out there 'follow' others is simply in the hope of getting a 'follow' in return. If you don't reciprocate their 'follow' fairly quickly, then they 'unfollow' you in punishment for your snub. Well, at least it seems that way to me.


Welcome to social media!

This is how social networking was done in Queen Victoria's day...

Monday 30 November 2015

Nuptial Digressions

The vast majority of birders do, I'm sure, have gaps in their week which have to be filled with real life. I am no different. For example, couples get married and invite you to their wedding. As a consequence Mrs NQS and I have attended many, many weddings. Our own best man alone has provided us with three opportunities, but to be honest this sort of generosity is unusual! Anyway, our most recent was on Saturday, when some young friends tied the knot in Winchester. Following the traditional meal, speeches, etc, there was music and dancing. Normally I tend not to embarrass people by gyrating in front of them, but for some reason this time I found myself caught up in the moment and got on down a bit. On Sunday I learned that some video had been recorded and what they referred to as my 'dad dancing' was now the source of much amusement for our friends...

I had to Google 'dad dancing'. My suspicions were confirmed:

noun: dad dancing (British informal)
  1. awkward or unfashionable dancing to pop music, as characteristically performed by middle-aged or older men.
    "for optimum embarrassment of offspring, dad dancing is best performed to REM's Shiny Happy People"
So, that's what Google said, but all I can say is that Google wasn't there, so didn't see it, and the reality was actually pretty smooth.

On Saturday the bride was 19 and the groom, 21. Combined age: 40. By today's standards I would imagine this is exceptionally young, and as an older bloke it was hard to think of the happy couple as much more than kids really. Yet at my own wedding the combined age was only 43. A lot younger than number two son and his fiancé, who will have chalked up 62 years between them when they marry next year. However, at the other end of the spectrum I am delighted to mention that my mum is getting married in Australia on Friday; in this case the combined age will be one hundred and FIFTY!

All this talk of nuptials has distracted me from the stuff that I was intending to write about and, as I haven't been birding for a few days, I think that's going to be more or less it for this post. Here's a photo of Saturday's wedding car...

I'm really not a fan of Beetles, but have to admit that this one is very cool indeed.
On a different note...

The other day I was browsing through the NQS MkI archives which I recently discovered and came across a series of posts on the evolution of bird information services, from the 'grapevine', through Nancy's Café and Birdline to RBA etc. It was a tongue-in-cheek look at the somewhat ruthless monetisation of rare bird information. It reminded me that I mustn't get complacent and allow NQS to rest on any laurels I think it might have, and be ever mindful of opportunities to get a little off-piste. Anyone remember Martin Collinson's 'George Bristow's Secret Freezer'? Well worth a browse if you fancy a birding blog that's a bit different. It hasn't been updated in five years, but at least he's not selfishly deleted it like some lapsed bloggers do.

By the way, grateful thanks to those who have said nice things about the revival of NQS. I promise not to selfishly delete it for a good while yet.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Suppression? Good Idea!

When I first started birding the Seaton area in the mid-noughties Black Hole Marsh didn't exist, and it was quite possible to go to Colyford Common or Seaton Marshes without seeing another soul. Even more so if up Beer Head or checking the estuary or seawatching. Here we are 10+ years on and this is no longer the case. When I looked in on the Glossy Ibis at Seaton Marshes on Monday I saw at least four other birders, and any visit to BHM virtually guarantees a few cars in the car park, if not lots. Yes, things have changed; the Axe is no longer the Backwater that it was...

So, a question: is this a good thing, or quite the opposite?

The answer probably depends on your point of view. As a patch birder - and a selfish one at that - I didn't much like the 'intrusion' such popularity precipitated. My preference would be that our patch had remained a well kept secret, known only to a few. This was of course impossible, for at least three reasons:
  • The publicity generated by a dynamic Birdforum thread and several lively blogs
  • The ongoing development of the Axe Estuary Wetlands project, with its reserves and hides
  • The relentless appearance of really rare birds

As patch birders, to a great extent we few were victims of our own success.

"Tough!" one might say. Indeed. However, such popularity has an interesting (and perhaps surprising) consequence...


For example, on Monday I was given a bit of gen about some local Bramblings and asked to keep it to myself because the locality was a bit sensitive. The concern? That photographers might spoil things by going where they ought not, thereby upsetting local landowners. Anyway, I went and had a look and scored six Bramblings. Nice. Local Woodlarks have also been subject to this kind of suppression. Some might argue that 'suppression' is a bit strong, and maybe 'non-publicity' would be a better way to put it. Perhaps. But supposing it was a wintering Little Bunting, say? Or, what about Pine Bunting? Well, that's definitely suppression, no question! So, even with something modest like a few Bramblings, really there is unequivocal suppression going on. And the reason why? Because the patch is basically too popular, and a lot more birders than the few locals would want to include Brambling on the itinerary of their visit. Okay, but so what? Does that fact alone justify suppression?

In my experience, yes, because so many birders simply cannot behave. And the more birders you have, the greater the likelihood of there being some utter divots among them.

A few years ago this turned up at Exminster Marshes:

A rather smart American Robin. I was fortunate enough to see it before the hordes arrived, but when I took Mrs NQS on the Saturday, this was the scenario:

The bird was in that hedge on the left. The charmers right on top of it there hounded the thing into oblivion with their big lenses and splendid fieldcraft. As a consequence Mrs NQS never saw it. It's not often I want to do people real harm, but that was one time...

My point? A lot of decent birds turn up on much less public local patches than Exminster Marshes. Witnessing this kind of behaviour is enough to make anyone think twice about releasing news, especially if the locality is a bit sensitive in some way. When it's just a scarce bird like, say, a roosting Long-eared Owl, well, no big deal. But when it's a real rarity, that's a very different matter! Birders generally resent such suppression. And yet, in reality some of them are responsible for it...

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Ibis, Ibises, Ibides, Ibes

Before I trundled off to work this morning I had a quick walk along Cogden beach and added three species to my patch list: Grey Plover, Red-breasted Merganser and Shelduck. Thinking back to my old patch on the Axe the first two would have been quite noteworthy - especially the Grey Plover. Given that we're still in Lyme Bay it wouldn't surprise me if they were noteworthy at Cogden too, but the interesting thing is that I don't really know. Not yet. Yes, learning about a new patch is quite exciting!

And so - briefly - to the old patch.

Today I paid my respects to the Glossy Ibis that's made Seaton Marshes its home. Long range + no light + elderly camera = a bit of a mess...

Although it's been around for a month or so, this was my first visit. "Hello" I said.

Previous Glossy Ibis encounters on the Axe...

September 2009 - 6 birds which made us all hurry very much
Early one morning in September 2010, and 18 of a flock of 21 from Sidmouth fly distantly past Bun and me at Beer Head

In addition to the above there was another bird quite recently (last year?) which turned up when I was phasing. It was a one day job I think...though I don't actually know because I didn't see it and didn't care. Also, the bird in the top photo came with a friend initially. Finally, there was a bird in the 1940s which spent a few months around the valley. So, if you were dead jammy and really old you could have seen 28 Glossy Ibises on the Axe. Mind you, in 2009 I expect you'd have been really hacked off that your 60-year blocker had just fallen...

Anyway, enough about that dump the Axe, let's talk about photo quality. Looking at those above I have to say that a lot of my pics are really quite awful. On most blogs I notice that photo quality gradually gets better as time passes and new gear is purchased. Well, here on NQS the 'time passing' part is definitely happening, but the 'new gear purchasing' part, not so much. Suffer on, dear readers.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Patch Progress

I think it is now safe to say that I have definitely adopted a new patch. Three people bear responsibility for this: Ian McLean, Steve Waite and James McCarthy - all of whom suggested it - and especially James, who works it already and extended an enthusiastic invitation to share it. The place? Regular readers (can I say that yet?) will know it is Cogden, in West Dorset. A couple of maps...

As you can see, there are fields, hedgerows, scrubby bits, a reedy mere and a wide beach. There is also sea! The yellow line more or less delineates the border, but it isn't cast in stone. I reckon the beach frontage measures a little under a mile. The B3157 runs along a ridge which I would guess at comfortably over 100ft in elevation, so the entire patch slopes gently down to the sea, and faces SW. Imagine how utterly ghastly that's going to be on a warm, calm day...
This one puts the Cogden patch in its West Dorset context. Note West Bexington just to the SE - well worked, with a proven track record. Also, Seaton and the Axe approximately 15 miles due W - mostly rubbish of course, redeemed only by an estuary which gets gulls. A similar distance away to the SE lies a massive lump of rock, home to many rabbits.
Cogden is a five mile drive from my home, around 10 minutes or so. I'd prefer closer of course, but reckon this modest journey is a small price to pay for what is evidently going to be some interesting and (I hope) rewarding birding.

So, how's it going?

My first visit, in pouring rain just over two weeks ago, yielded a hefty 14 species! Very slowly the patch list began to grow, and last Friday a walk around with James produced a few nice bits: 3 Golden Plovers, 3 Mistle Thrushes and a juv-type Marsh Harrier, only James' third at Cogden. All good. Yesterday I got down for a late afternoon visit in the biting NW and added 3 Lapwings and 3 Brent Geese, and flushed 2 Snipe off the beach. My patch list now stood at 48.

And so to today...

It's been a long time since I witnessed any of the amazing late autumn Woodpigeon migration that this part of the country is renowned for, and the forecast looked good for this morning. I knew I only had until about 09:00, and managed to make it to Cogden in time for sunrise...


That thin sliver running along the horizon is Portland
The Woodpigs came, thousands of them. Mostly fairly high, in slowly writhing, sinuous clouds. It truly is a birding spectacle. I made no effort to count them; I was much too interested in patch-ticking. Once I'd winkled out a few Stock Doves I tried to concentrate on what else was going on. A bit tricky, because there was too much! Heading E along the beach it was hard to know where to look. There were birds flying W overhead and inland, birds passing on the sea, and I really didn't have much time! Highlights included: a female Goldeneye W, Curlew and Oystercatcher, 2 Wigeon and a Teal, several Siskins, a Razorbill and a surprise House Martin! A lot of finches went past, but unfortunately I couldn't dig out a Brambling. Annoyingly I am pretty sure I briefly heard the pinging of Bearded Tits from the reedbed, but couldn't swear to it, saw nothing, and couldn't wait around. Ah well. By the time I climbed back in the car my Cogden list was on 59. However, this afternoon I added another species without even visiting the patch...

Walking back along the beach this morning I heard a fairly muted corvid commotion going on behind me, and turned around to see a Crow hassling another Marsh Harrier! Excellent! I managed to whip out the camera and get a couple of lousy shots. Here's one:

Not a Crow. Number 60 - Rook!!

Friday 20 November 2015

The Eye-browed Thrush Conundrum

Today I want to talk about Eye-browed Thrush. Now I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of rarity stats, and I don't subscribe to any bird information services that can provide such, but this I do know: Eye-browed Thrush is presently a very rare bird! It always has been really, but there was a time when it seemed an October trip to Scilly virtually guaranteed one. That time began in 1984, and happily coincided with my first visit. Yes, I woz there.

In 1984 it was a rarity of unimagineable hugeness - everybody needed it. So when one turned up on our final Saturday there was a massive amount of very quick running. Justifiably so. The IOS Bird Report put it like this:

'The breathtaking beauty of a fine male at Salakee, St Mary's on Oct 20 induced something akin to a stunned silence amongst the assembled gathering as it periodically appeared in hedges or on grassy fields.'

Absolutely. It truly was a stunner.

There were then two in 1987 - either side of my visit that year - and another in 1990. I got a chance at that one, on Tresco, but dipped. Come 1991 and no one was that surprised when yet another Eye-browed Thrush was found at Telegraph, St Mary's on Oct 12. I saw that bird, which performed really well but was very different from the 1984 male, being a rather dull first-year. It was also present the next day.

And now comes the interesting bit. The bird was at Telegraph on Oct 12 and 13, but seemingly gone the following day. And then on Oct 15 an Eye-browed Thrush turns up on Tresco and also stays for a second day. Same bird? Could be, I've no idea - I certainly didn't see it and don't recall even going to try. Oct 17 dawns, and there are no Eye-browed Thrushes anywhere. It's all over.

Except it isn't! Early on Oct 18 an Eye-browed Thrush is found on St Mary's - again in the Telegraph area! What's going on? Is this the same bird, back from Tresco? Or, if the Tresco bird was a new one, is it now visiting St Mary's? Or is this the original St Mary's bird popping up again after a period in hiding? Or have there actually been three birds?! Herein lies the conundrum of the post title...

Because the official stance is that just ONE bird was responsible for all the sightings. As far as I am aware this remains the position today. I suppose this is certainly the safest approach, if by 'safest' we mean bo-o-o-oring! After all, let's not forget that Scilly was awash with Eye-broweds in the late 80s/early 90s. Seriously though, to this day I think a trick was missed here. I saw the Oct 18 bird, and I'll bet I am not the only birder who at the time was convinced we were not looking at the dull individual of Oct 12/13. My memory tells me it was noticeably brighter - still a first-year, yes, but not the same first-year.

Memory, eh? How useful is that after all this time?! Ah yes, good point, but thankfully I don't just have to rely on my memory. I have photos*! So I present them here, and ask that NQS readers cast a critical eye over them and see what you think. Same bird, or different?

This is the first bird - photographed by George Reszeter in the Telegraph pines. Present Oct 12 and 13, it is certainly a dull individual, and the pale greater covert tips age it as a first-year. Plumage-wise, I'm getting only brown on the upperparts - no hint of grey in the head in my opinion. It's worth noting that I've slightly upped the colour saturation on this photo, because the original was a bit flat and this puts it more on a par with the second photo...
And here we are on Oct 18. Telegraph area, at the top of Porthloo Lane I think. This photo captures my memory of the event really well. Quite distant, nice sunshine. Again, presumably a first-year, but to me it appears significantly brighter. I am definitely getting some grey in the head on this bird too (it certainly doesn't look the same colour as the scapulars) and the face pattern looks more contrasty. On this photo I have turned the colour saturation down several notches, so the vegetation looks a bit less garish than in the original. Even so, isn't that bird still a lot more colourful than the one above?

Okay, there you have it. In case it wasn't obvious, I am in the two-bird camp. Of course it's a shame that one bird is facing left and the other right, but I still reckon there's enough evidence in the photos alone to conclude that two different birds were involved. My guess is that the first was a young female, the second a young male - hence the hint of grey in the head etc. That being the case, I suppose one or other may well have been responsible for the Tresco record...but when we consider the 'scarce migrant' status of Eye-browed Thrush on Scilly back then, well, it's got to be three birds surely?

Come on, dear readers, this is NQS in campaigning mode - let's right a 24 year-old wrong! That lovely young male(?) Eye-browed Thrush deserves recognition and its rightful place as a digit in a stats table somewhere...

* The photos are not mine, but I have no idea who took the second one. So, if the original photographer reads this, my apologies that I am unable to give credit where it's due, and my thanks for not suing me.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Phasing Thing

Although my birding 'career' spans well over three decades (over four if you include junior dabblings) it certainly doesn't add up to that figure, because there has been a lot of phasing in that time. What is phasing? I guess it can be loosely defined as the loss of enthusiasm for an activity to the extent that you no longer really participate in it. I would argue that there are degrees of phasing, in that it might be total (ie. 100% inactive) or maybe not quite that bad (ie. would dust off the optics for a patch Great Spotted Cuckoo, say). If I tallied up my phasing time it would come to a lot of years!

Perhaps phasing is a sign of a character flaw? I've always been slightly in awe of people who seem able to maintain a consistently high level of enthusiasm, year in, year out. How do they do it? Is it that I'm just a fickle, restless creature with a short attention span, ready to flit on to something else the moment the going gets tough? Are the steady, tenacious types somehow more virtuous?

Really, such questions are moot I think. We are simply all different. Not more or less admirable for our various approaches. No, just different.

I'm glad I've come to this conclusion, because it puts me in a much better light! Especially when I consider the myriad activities which I have, over the years, pursued with obsessive enthusiasm...only to phase. And phase badly!

Take angling.

This was me around 25 years ago...

An 8lb+ Barbel from the River Kennet in Berkshire
A 27lb+ Wels Catfish from Tiddenfoot Pit near Leighton Buzzard

In 2011 I accompanied my son Rob on a trip to fish the River Kennet. We spent a few days on stretches of the river I'd last fished in the 1990s, and I caught a massive Barbel that was half as big again as the fish in the photo above, a personal best by a long way. While I enjoyed myself, there was simply no 'buzz' to it all; I was just going through the motions. Unless it's to keep Rob company I doubt I'll ever go again. The Catfish pictured above was rumoured to be the biggest in the lake at the time, and was one of many I caught in the summer of 1990. I had loved every minute! The following summer I returned, fished just one night and instantly realised the magic had gone. I've never been back, and never will.

Yep, when it comes to angling I have seriously phased!

Also golf, and squash, and playing guitar, and drawing, and running, and I could go on...

My enthusiasm for birding may have been a bit moribund at times, but it's always registered at least a faint pulse. At the moment it's jogging along quite nicely...

Monday 16 November 2015

A Jamboree Bag of Stuff

Had a slow walk around the new patch at lunchtime. In fact I went beyond the patch, and encroached on West Bexington turf. I was drawn there by a very distant gang of gulls on the beach, and when I reached them I found I was level with West Bexington Mere - a seasonal body of shallow water that lies just behind the beach. There were gulls on that too. Thankfully they were all dross, so I'll do my best to henceforth pretend it doesn't exist. There's no legit way to include it in the Cogden patch.

The sea was dead as dead can be, but it did give me Lesser Black-backed Gull for my patch list. Inland I added Raven, Jackdaw, Green Woodpecker and Bullfinch, and my tally now stands at a very modest 35. Slow going, eh? Still, you never know. I walked over a mile of shingle today, and I might easily have found a Snow Bunting or something...

Hmm, this is a good sign. That last sentence is just the kind of platitude with which the patch birder combats serial patch mediocrity. I think I must be settling in for the long haul...

On a different note, the 2W Caspian Gull which I enjoyed on the Axe this Saturday followed closely on the heels of a similarly aged bird at Broadsands in Torbay three days earlier. Were they one and the same? If there are good enough photos you can frequently draw a confident conclusion one way or the other. Well, in this case there are, as you can see from THIS post on Devon Birds, and THIS post on Stevie's blog. I squidged the birds into a collage, and this is what it looks like...

For me it was convincing enough that the bills are absolutely identical in every nuance, but there are helpful plumage details also. The two offset white edges on display among the coverts for example - one greater covert and one median, as marked by the little yellow arrows. A careful look reveals more similarities too, despite the fact that the feathers are lying somewhat differently in each pose. (Photos: Top, Mike Langman; bottom, Ian McLean.)

So, the same bird I reckon. In 2011 we had a December Casp on the Axe which had also been on Portland back in October. This was proven by comparing photos. And another which turned up in Feb 2012 reappeared several weeks later. Again, photos confirmed it was the same individual. I find this very interesting because it suggests that even though Caspian Gull records are on the increase in this part of the country, it is definitely still a rare bird. Observers are surely getting better at picking them out, but it's not necessarily a case of an actual influx of birds...and I wonder how many 'sight only' records might well tie in with other Devon/Dorset birds reported within the same season.

Finally, one of the reasons I do like Twitter is that occasionally something pops up in my feed which gives me a nice lift. In the face of the really dark stuff that's happening right now, this little video cheered me up no end at breakfast time today...

Sunday 15 November 2015

Irresistible. Why?

On Wednesday I started coming down with some virus thing. The havoc it's been wreaking upon my poor little bod has left me rather feeble and I've been cooped up indoors, feeling sorry for myself. Mind you, I have used the downtime constructively and written two entirely serious posts about the decline in Scilly's birding fortunes. That said, I've also been bored stupid; I hate enforced idleness. So, when a text from Steve Waite arrived yesterday, announcing the presence of a 1W Caspian Gull on my old patch, well, I wished I was there...and sulked a bit. When the second text arrived, announcing the arrival of another Caspian Gull, I got really fidgety. Two together on the Axe is unprecedented. Plague or not, I suddenly wanted to go. Needed to go!

What is the mechanism that makes this happen? I am completely at a loss to explain it. For almost two years my birding urges have been basically moribund. This year I didn't bother twitching the Black Hole Marsh Penduline Tits or Baird's Sandpiper, nor a pinned down Black Stork at West Bexington (lifer for me) and yet here I am ready to jump in the car and drive almost 20 miles to my old patch in the very slim hope that two Caspian Gulls might stick around...which they almost never do!

Anyway, I stopped stroking my chin and just got going. Sure enough two Casps staying put was asking a bit much, and the 1W had flown. But the second bird was still there, if somewhat distant...

Dreadful though this photo is, it occurred to me that it might serve a useful purpose. Because while NQS MkII was extant one or two readers did express how challenging they found gull ID, especially Caspian Gull. So, if you wanted to you could actually use this pic to give yourself a little test. Here's how:

Simply imagine someone showing it to you and saying "Is there any gull in this photo that makes you go 'Hmmm, I wonder if that could be a Caspian Gull...'?"

Alright. Have you done that? Go on, give it a go. No trick - the Casp is in there.

So, you've now had a good look. An unhurried, careful look.  Right then, which of the following would be your answer?

(a) Yes, the one in the middle, partially hidden, but standing tall with its gleaming white head, little shawl of dark spotting, and two-toned bill.
(b) No
(c) Yes, all of them
(d) Yes [insert any bird except the one highlighted in (a)]

Ok, well done. Your answer will tell you one of two things...
1. You are tuned in to what a possible Casp looks like.
2. You are not.

If you answered (a), well, great. You have no excuse! Get stuck in...Happy gulling!
If you answered (b), (c) or (d), well, yes, you're dead right - large gulls are stupid boring things that all look exactly alike! But if you ever change your mind, there are books...and ID articles and stuff...

Now, these little beauts are, for me, the first step on the road to Loving the Gull...

Amusingly poor photo of an adult Med Gull yesterday. Picking one of these out from a flock of BHGs is always a pleasure, whether you're a novice gullwatcher or you've seen thousands of them.

That was weird. This post began life as a navel-gazing look at the temperamental nature of my birding engine, and ended up somewhere very else indeed! I had no control over it at all...

Saturday 14 November 2015

The Trouble With Scilly - Part 2

My first visit to the hallowed Isles was in October 1984, when I was 25 years old. Having been a relatively late starter to proper birding many of my contemporaries already had several Scilly autumns under their belts. So those who - like me - were here for the first time, were in the main hardly old enough to shave. Of course there were older birders too. Four of them.* Peter Grant, pretty elderly at about 41, plus David Hunt, Brian Bland and Cliff Waller, all of whom were ancient. Over 50, rumour had it. Notwithstanding this dollop of antiquity, the average age of birders on Scilly in October 1984 was just 23 and 4 months. Fact.

Is it possible for a birder in 2015 to visualise that scenario of more than 30 years ago? Just picture it! Approximately six thousand thrusting young birders crowded onto a few tiny islands, all rampantly eager to list, and list HARD. The presence of this throbbing dynamo of youth had inevitable consequences. Every last inch of birdable habbo got burned up, over and over again. And nothing got missed. Fuelled by an endless supply of proper cream teas, the rampaging horde squeezed out every single decent bird on the islands.

As well as the thoroughness there was another thing. Speed. Sure, birders mostly walked when they were on the hunt, but immediately a good bird was found, there was running. I learned a trick that year from my friend Brendan, a veteran of previous Scilly campaigns. He would spend only half of his time in the field actually searching for birds, because the other half was needed to scan the horizon for people running. We'd be on the Garrison and he'd suddenly go "Quick! People running! Up near Telegraph!" and off we'd go, running to join them. All that energy! It was brilliant! We saw more rare birds than you can possibly imagine!

It's all pretty logical really. That number of eager, youthful birders, well-fuelled and running everywhere, was absolutely bound to result in a lo-o-o-ng list of mega-rare birds every autumn.

Anyway, here's some proof of how it was. The photo was taken in 1987. Nobody over 30 in this pic. Just look at all that dark hair! And, I might add, not a waistline above 34".

St Agnes 1987 - roughly 2% of the birders present that day

Fast forward to the modern day...

Well, it's all rather obvious isn't it. The intervening years have taken their toll. Consider the following factors:
  • The recruitment of young birders into the ranks has fallen to about three per annum. Student loans and mobile/Netflix/Spotify etc contracts means they're skint and can't possibly afford Scilly.
  • Many of the old guard hammered the cream teas and cake so much that they've either pegged it or grown too vast for travelling.
  • Those left are all old, all slow, mostly lazy, and frequently jaded.
  • There are new birders entering the fray, but they're all retirees. Most aren't tempted to go to Scilly because it isn't that Zimmer-friendly, and those who do can't get further than Lower Moors.
Clearly there is only one inevitable outcome from all this: fewer birders + far, far less vigour = much less coverage = much less found.

The next photo well illustrates the current situation. St Agnes 2010, and the rarest bird on the islands. Every single birder present that year is there, plus several curious passers-by.

Red-eyed Vireo - 34 birders, average age 72 and 3 months

So there we are. Received wisdom has it that Scilly is a waste of time these days, and the evidence to hand strongly concurs with this view. The place is now a cream tea desert, with just a handful of hunched and geriatric bird spotters shuffling uselessly from bench to bench, barely able to lift their bins.

However, the discerning reader will no doubt realise that all this presents an interesting opportunity. More of which in a later post...

* Actually, five. I forgot about the venerable Mike Rogers, who was also in his dotage by then. So the average age in 1984 is now eight minutes older than stated.

Thursday 12 November 2015

The Trouble With Scilly - Part 1

There was a time when an autumn trip to Scilly occupied a slot on almost every birder's calendar. That is sadly no longer the case. Birders will tell you that it's simply not the same, that the magic has gone. I can sympathise.

After all, Scilly is a walking venue. You won't be driving. Okay, you'll probably do a bit of travelling by boat, but other than that it's 100% footslogging. Although you can rent a bicycle (or an electric buggy!) virtually no one does. And of course, what a birder needs after several miles of wearisome trudging is a decent cream tea, and/or cake. And herein lies the modern-day problem. Years ago you could be virtually anywhere on the islands, totally knackered and on the point of collapse, and there would a be a tearoom within about ten paces. That's why Scilly held something like six thousand birders during the second and third weeks of October - proper sustenance was absolutely guaranteed whenever it was needed. So, what's happened?

Well, the decline began when a couple of tearooms closed their doors at the end of September. It was like a slap in the face for some, and many Scilly regulars could see the writing on the wall. Sure enough, the following autumns saw a decline in birder presence. It was then a vicious circle. Fewer birders = less revenue = less reason to stay open for October. And the quality began to suffer. Scones got smaller, and one or two dodgy establishments even resorted to warming them by microwave. Dreadful. Birder numbers inevitably tumbled. Clotted cream portions shrank. Jam too. Enough was enough. Birders voted with their feet...which leaves us where we are today, with just a scant dozen or so birders across the islands throughout October.

So, what can the pioneering birder who heads for Scilly these days expect in the way of cream tea and cake? A few weeks ago I decided to find out...

There is now only one tearoom on the whole of Scilly. It's called Juliet's Garden. The proprietors have obviously seen the small niche market opportunity that a dozen birders provide and have at least made an effort. But there is a long way to go before birders are going to be attracted back in their former numbers. For example, just take a look at the size of the scones in the photo below. Any decent birder would want at least ten of them. And see how I've only managed a pathetic smear of cream and jam? I knew the cream tea was going to be insufficient, so ordered cake too. It went like this:

Me (having popped indoors to look at the cakes on offer): Hello.
Waitress: Hello, can I help you?
Me: I've just popped indoors to look at the cakes on offer.
Waitress: Oh. Well, we don't have them on display.
Me: You're joking!
Waitress: No, we keep them in the kitchen and just bring a piece out when you order it.
Me: But how do I know what I'm buying?
Waitress: You don't. That's why we keep them in the kitchen, so that you can't see what they look like or how small the portions are. [I'm fairly sure this is what she said]
Me: Okay, well, can you tell me what cakes you've got please.
Waitress: It's all on the menu. Which is on your table outside. I'll take your order when I come out.
Me: But...

Anyway, I gave up, defeated, and eventually ordered some chocolate cake. It was okay but, as you can see, way too small.

Compare that to how things were and, well, you can see the problem.

So, in the spirit of comparison I thought it might be helpful to post a couple of photos from days of yore.

This next one was taken at the now defunct Longstone Heritage Centre a few years ago. This is before the rot really set in. As you can see, nice big scones and heaps of cream and jam...

You're probably thinking 'not bad, but I'm sure they were even better than that in the eighties', and yes, you're dead right. As every birder knows, Scilly was amazing in the eighties. The scones were so massive that most of them couldn't support themselves as they cooked, and fell over a bit. And portions of cream and jam were so generous that you couldn't get it all on, and would end up having to finish it off with a spoon. So here we are then, a proper birder's cream tea from the days when Scilly was undeniably the best...

"Cream tea for one please"       The mid-80's - Scilly's heyday

While things remain as they are I find it hard to envisage birders returning to Scilly in any numbers. After all, what else has the place got to offer?

And I might add, Shetland has upped its game of late. The reason birders never bothered with the place in the past was because you couldn't get a cream tea for love nor money. Pies, yes, loads of them, but not proper food. Well, now look:

Victoria is originally from Devon, and offers a mean cream tea. This place is on Unst. Have you noticed recently how many decent birds are getting reported from Unst? Exactly.