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.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

How to Cheat at Blogging

When I discovered my surprise stash of old blog posts the other day, my initial thought was how useful they would be if I was struggling for inspiration, feeling lazy etc. But something not quite kosher just now occurred to me. Would it work if I copied and pasted the contents into a new post? And could I dip into my old blog photos that I recently found online and upload them into that new post as well. The answer to both these questions is yes.

Which has presented me with an ethical dilemma, because now I can make an old post look exactly like a new one. So, I just went through this little thought process:

Should I...
  • Announce the fact that it's old stuff in a little foreword?
  • Pass it off as completely fresh material?
One could say that the first approach is up-front and honest, and the second thoroughly deceitful. That's true, one could. On the other hand, one could say that the second approach is, a light-hearted challenge to veteran NQS readers, say? Maybe they'd enjoy trying to spot the 'old' new posts?

Anyway, my mind wandered down this lane for a bit, but then I thought 'Who cares what you do? It's your blog! Say in advance if you want...or don't...just stop agonising over it you idiot!'

In conclusion then, there may be future cheating. Or not. Or both...

There follows a post about my early days of London area birding, originally published 22 Dec 2009. Reading back my old posts now I realise that some of my writing was (is?) much too wordy, so there may be a teeny bit of editing. Here it is then...

Early Days - Birding Badlands

Although there were some earlier dabblings, for me proper birding began around 1981. I finally replaced my colossal ex-army 7x50's with bins that allowed me to stand upright, and bought a scope. One late December day in '81 found me traipsing round Queen Mother Res for Great Northern and Black-throated Divers, Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes and a Velvet Scoter - most of that lot being lifers! Staines Res, Wraysbury GP, Queen Mary Res, Perry Oaks SF - all the W London birding hotspots saw my eager efforts. I also began to put faces to some of the names in my 1980 London Bird Report, and as 1982 and '83 came and went I slowly became part of the scene myself.

But the London Recording Area is much, much bigger than the Staines neighbourhood, and I was getting itchy feet. It was time to dip my toe in East London. I made my first visits to a few sites that I had so far only read about. I no longer have the relevant notebooks, so will have to rely on my memory, but the initial impressions are still extremely vivid.

Rainham Marsh
A bitterly cold day, snow on the ground. Vast and bleak. Skylarks and Corn Buntings illuminated from below as they flew over the snowscape. Bearded Tits popping up and pinging as I waded into the huge beds of Sea Aster - a London tick, along with a couple of Hen Harriers. Yes, the birds were great. But the overriding impression was that this was a seedy and desolate place, and any moment I was going to stumble across a pair of gangland killers hauling a corpse from the boot of a car. I felt strangely vulnerable.

Dagenham Chase
I first came here to look for a Long-eared Owl roost. I didn't find it. Again it was a freezing day, and the first thing I saw as I arrived in the early morning was a Lurcher trotting away across a piece of waste ground with a dead cat hanging from its jaws. Lovely.

West Thurrock
There was a power station here, with a warm water outfall that attracted terns. Also ash lagoons with a wader roost. The first time I went there I noticed I was not alone. Most of my East London birding had so far been notable for the total absence of other people, but not today - there was another guy creeping about on the Stone Ness saltmarsh. He was dressed in camouflage, wearing a black balaclava with two eye holes, and carrying a rifle. I gave him a very wide berth...

Dartford Marsh
Another vast and empty place. Once again my first visit was in winter. I remember seeing a Hen Harrier, and again failing to find a Long-eared Owl roost. Desolate and uninviting. It probably didn't help that my pioneering visits were midweek and therefore unaccompanied.

The Thames in E London was wide, industrialised, thick and smelly. The birding hotspots were bleak, with an air of dismal neglect and vague threat. But the birding was fantastic! Dartford Marsh has given me Sociable Plover and Purple Heron; Dagenham Chase a stunning male Pine Bunting, and Long-eared Owls many times; West Thurrock a Sabine's Gull, plus Roseate and White-winged Black Terns. And here's a notebook page from a visit to Rainham:

Almost exactly one year later I went to Rainham again, this time for a first-summer male Red-footed Falcon. Of course, Rainham Marsh is now a premier RSPB reserve, and I think it's fairly safe to say that it is (and probably always was) the best birding site in London.

In comparison to these dodgy venues, W London was positively genteel!

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Baby Steps

Cogden is a big place. Sussing it out is therefore going to take time...and patience. I'm sort of hoping that late autumn/winter is actually a good season to begin the process of finding my way around, as I should be able to cover a fair bit of ground without fretting that I'm overlooking some migrant hotspot and missing out big time. I've managed a few short visits since the first...

View from the car park.

Seawatching facilities.

Talking of seawatching...

Staring at the sea in the hope of passing birds is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is mine. Seaton had some decent seawatching spots, with pretty good shelter if needed. What Cogden does have is sea. Loads of it. And I'm sure it'll be worth watching, being probably less than 15 miles E of Seaton on the SW facing side of Lyme Bay. Trouble is, shelter looks hard to come by. Patch pedantry dictates that birds be seen on (or from) the patch, so at the moment I can't see any alternative to hunching miserably in the lee of a hedge or something. And as I get older I find myself less tolerant of discomfort, so my seabird list may be slow to get going...

That said, I got down there for a walk along the beach this afternoon and did spot some seabirds. It was blowing a mild hoolie and my specs kept salting up, but there were birds out there. Not many, sure, but I spied a Gannet, maybe two, and a drake Common Scoter flew W - both new for my patch list. And best of all there were gulls! Admittedly a very thin sprinkling, but amongst the dross were four little beauties - Med Gulls, three adults and a 1st-winter, all of which slowly moved W. Here is grainy proof...

Adult Med Gull - a worthy species for my first Cogden birdy pic

My patch list now sits at 31, and I suppose Med Gull, Common Scoter, Cetti's Warbler, Sparrowhawk and Water Rail might be the highlights so far. That's in four visits! As the title says: baby steps!

Monday 9 November 2015

The Lapsed Blogger's Dream?

I have just discovered the best possible thing that could happen to a lapsed blogger who re-enters the fray. Such a blogger knows from experience that the well of inspiration is sometimes dry. He knows also the time involved in compiling a new post, and how elusive that time can often be. In addition he can sometimes be really quite lazy. What might such a blogger kill for?

Archive material from an old incarnation of his blog, perhaps? Yes indeed!

I've just been poking around the dusty recesses of my hard drive and found exactly that. I'd forgotten all about them! I can take screenshots and post them as images, and then the truly desperate can click, make big, and read. Result!

The original version of NQS was hatched on 21 June, 2008. Here is the very first post...

Interestingly, the final sentence was way off the mark, and Scilly featured several times, and will again. The first line, however, was absolutely spot on. I'm still wondering! And probably, dear long-suffering readers, so are you...

Believe me, now that I've found this little treasure trove you can be sure I'll be raiding it as the need arises!

Sunday 8 November 2015

A Little Journey

In the late autumn of 2004 I made my first explorative trips up Beer Head, a 10-minute, three mile drive from my then home in Seaton, Devon. Apart from quite a few October Chiffs I didn't see much, but in early November I had a Firecrest and Ring Ouzel in consecutive visits. This was enough to get me making a proper effort in 2005 and it was soon apparent that in the right conditions Beer Head would serve up a nice helping of common migrants. Then in September I jammed a Dotterel, in October had up to eight Ring Ouzels, and finally in November a fly-over Richard's Pipit. It's fair to say that Beer Head was by now 'on the map' and regularly visited by other local birders.

Now for a bit of grippage...

Beer Head goodies were not always as obliging as you would like. In 2006 and 2009 I was fortunate enought to co-find the patch's only Ortolan Buntings. Here's the latter...

Dire pic of course, but do you think I care?!

In April 2007 Stevie found Beer Head's only Mega - an Iberian Chiffchaff. In the next photo you can't really make it out, but Karen is dangling her camera over the fence to record the song, a crucial factor in getting the bird past the BBRC.

The Iberian Chiff was an absolute pig to actually see, as it skulked away in the undercliff scrub. Unlike the next bird which, though technically not Beer Head's rarest bird, was certainly it's most spectacular...

Great Spotted Cuckoo. Again, photo quality not great, but hey-ho, that's hardly the point!

Interestingly the GS Cuckoo turned up in April 2014, by which time I was phasing badly. Happily, my fellow patchers hadn't quite given up on me and I got a text. My word, how grateful I was! What a stunner! It even generated a little twitch...

A clearly chuffed Tim White et al

So there you have it, a tightly edited journey through the development of Beer Head as an integral facet of the diamond that is the Axe/Seaton patch.

As far as I am aware nobody ever gave Beer Head more than a cursory looking-at prior to 2004, so not surprisingly it certainly felt at the time as if I was breaking new ground. That, however, cannot be said about Cogden. The little journey upon which I am about to embark here is on an already broken trail. While Cogden may well be relatively underwatched, it certainly has history! I know that James McCarthy pulled out an Ortolan this year, but I also had a trawl through the Dorset Birds blog and found - over the last five years - Richard's Pipit, Wryneck almost annually, Cirl Bunting, a superb adult Long-tailed Skua on the beach, and assorted other bits and bobs. I was especially encouraged to see that Glaucous, Iceland and Sabine's Gulls have also been recorded and, best of all, not just flying past but, like the skua, lingering on the beach. Gulls! Oh yes!

Friday 6 November 2015

Cogden - First Impressions

The weather kept me indoors yesterday afternoon and all this morning. Constant rain, dismal grey sogginess. By lunchtime today I was going stir-crazy, so grabbed bins, wellies and waterproof, and headed out...

Following my patchless lament a few days back, both Steve Waite and James McCarthy suggested I try Cogden. Unbeknown to me James has been working the place for a little while now, with encouraging results. To be fair, Cogden was first put to me a few months back by Axe patcher Ian McClean, previously a resident of West Bexington. He knows Cogden well, and made a good case. So why hadn't I bothered with it so far? Well - and I realise this may reflect unfavourably on me - it was because you have to pay to park. When it comes to car parking I am seriously tight, and always have been. I deeply resent having to go and feed coins into a machine before I can walk away from my car and enjoy myself; it somehow makes a trip out so much less carefree. I hate it! Anyway, as far as Cogden is concerned I've fixed the problem. I discovered that Cogden belongs to the National Trust and parking is FREE for members. So I joined. Sixty quid. Yep, I know, I am still basically paying to park. But - and for some inexplicable reason this fact is tremendously important - now I can simply get out of the car and walk away. No feeding a machine; just park and go. Irrational? Ah well...

So I arrive at around 12:15 and set off on a circular route. For the first 20 mins it's just drizzly, but the strong wind means my specs are hazed up in no time, so I take them off. Then it starts tanking down. Soon I am drenched.

Back at the car almost two hours later I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite the foul weather. The conditions meant that my bins didn't get raised too often, but I still kept a record of birds seen - 14 species. This pathetic tally might just be the beginning of a new patch list.

A few photos to give a flavour of 'Cogden in the Rain'...

Rough, scrubby fields, thick hedgerows - it all looks highly promising

Down by the sea here - not far behind me is Chesil Beach

Looking West along the shingle

Cogden looks brilliant, and appeals for several reasons:
  • Loads of gorgeous habbo. Rough, weedy fields; hedgerows and scrub; some little copses, sallow clumps etc.
  • Although I imagine it gets pretty busy with dog-walkers and such, it looks a big enough area for that to probably not matter. Also, with basically no houses nearby you have to travel to get there, further minimising (I hope) the number of people around.
  • Terrific looking beach backed by reedy 'mere', plus wide vista of sea.
  • Complete absence of hides. Yay!
I suppose the species potential is a bit constrained by the lack of open water (unless you count Lyme Bay!) and marshland. But I reckon this is amply compensated by the habitat mix it does have. Very much my kind of birding.

I have invested sixty quid in the place, which I suppose effectively means I have just bought a new patch.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Things To Do on a Rainy Day

Rain is right now hammering on the roof of our little conservatory. I can't work in this, and have nothing else that could possibly induce me outdoors. Cycling? Don't be daft. Consequently I have been tempted onto BirdForum. Not to post, you understand (I don't do that any more), just to browse. There is a thread about epic twitching endeavours of yore, which reminded me of this book...

...and in particular, this chapter...

If you've never read it, well, I shan't spoil it for you. But suffice to say it superbly captures the angst and uncertainty that went hand-in-hand with twitching prior to the days of any kind of bird information service, let alone mobile phones/internet etc. It's an inspirational read for the jaded birder.

And that's what I've been seeking. A bit of inspiration. The trouble with birding (or more precisely, with me and birding) is that I cannot escape the realisation that birding is just plain silly. Looked at objectively, all the noting and counting and recording and identifying and listing and photographing and especially the frantic simply frivolous. Try reading a long Rare Bird Information thread on BF with the eyes of an innocent. "These people are totally bonkers!" will be your inevitable judgement. And that's because they are!

However, there is an undeniable pleasure to be had from so many aspects of the hobby that I cannot ignore its appeal. So, one or two things that I've been mulling over:
  • The 'new patch' issue. A couple of friends have suggested Cogden, between Burton Bradstock and West Bexington. Not exactly virgin territory, but quite underwatched by all accounts. I shall investigate.
  • Topics for this blog. I recently discovered that all the photos which appeared in previous incarnations of NQS were available online, so have downloaded them to my laptop. I shall find reasons to resurrect a few. Also, I'd quite like to have a go at refuting the frequently touted view that Scilly has pretty much had it as a destination worthy of the serious birder. Of course, when I say 'serious birder' you'll realise by now that I believe there is no such creature!
  • Audience contribution. From my own experience I reckon it's safe to say that commenting on blogs (well, on blogs like this one) is a step too far for the vast majority of punters. I'd be delighted if NQS readers proved otherwise. This blog will never be the diary type, and I am open to suggestions re topics for discussion etc. That said, I am under no illusions, so even without the stimulation of audience participation I'm fairly confident I will still be able to bung some words together periodically...

Wednesday 4 November 2015

On Finding Rare Birds

It's been many years since I last found an official BB rarity. Not for want of trying I might add; it simply hasn't happened. I'm a pretty okay birder, I would say, and have a reasonable record when it comes to scarce/locally rare birds, but I'm probably a bit lazy. Other things being equal, someone with a bit more oomph will cover more spots and rack up a correspondingly bigger tally. Of course, time spent in the field is a factor too; during periods of phasing I have unsurprisingly found not much!

Things are different whenever I visit Scilly. For some reason the islands are very good for my work ethic. Perhaps it's the increased level of expectation? I'll generally be out from early and will cover a lot of ground, peering over every wall and from every gateway, scanning, searching. Pleasingly, I fairly often find something good. Short-toed Lark seems to be my speciality - in about eight spring visits I've found six. Usually a good find is rewarded by a little squirt of adrenaline, or sometimes - like when a Grey-cheeked Thrush popped up in front of me on St. Agnes - a big one! However, that is not always the case...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, and @birdingprof and I are out all day. Most of it is spent on St. Agnes. We spot many good birds, but so far there is no real finding as such. Returning to St. Mary's there is still plenty of birding time left, so I propose a trek up Peninnis. The Prof is, frankly, a bit knackered, and wants to do the track along the top - King Edward's Road. I will have none of it and press firmly for the coastal path skirting the western flank, all of which is bathed in a moment of gorgeous late sunshine. I can just picture the many vagrants gratefully perched up in its warmth. Some way along, a Short-eared Owl has been located on an offshore rock and we spend a bit of time with it, before turning once again to the sloping fields. I stand on a bench to get a good vantage point. A passerine comes bouncing across from the right and, as I get it in the bins, calls. I think my cogs are already on the point of churning out "large pipit" so it is no surprise when "Richard's Pipit!" comes blurting forth. Admittedly the call is rather clipped and quiet compared to what I remember of the "shreeep!" of Richard's. The Prof is on it too and immediately moots the possibility of Blyth's. I am sceptical, partly because of the Prof's tendency, but especially because Blyth's Pipit is dead rare and not on any of my lists at all! I don't find lifers much. We quickly locate it in a field of short grass and grill it. It is yonks since I've seen a big pipit on the deck, and the pale lores dictate that it must be Richard's or Blyth's...but which? Well, yes, I suppose it does have a spiky bill, and yes, it does seem to have a shortish tail. But this is all so subjective; I need something a bit more unequivocal. About this time there is an urgent arrival of puffing birders. Amid the clatter of tripods I hear an authoritative "Oh yes, definitely Blyth's!" echoed by several other experts/acolytes. I'm not sure whether I am more disappointed with my failure to nail the ID or my slight resentment of their glib confidence, but I soon find myself leaving them all to it and wandering some distance along the path.

You can probably guess where the Blyth's Pipit is...

With only some 22 accepted records, Blyth's Pipit is one of the rarest birds I have ever found (or, more accurately, co-found) but far from the most satisfying. For me, finding rare birds is still potentially one of the most exciting aspects of the hobby but it isn't always the straightforward thrill it ought to be!

Monday 2 November 2015

A Slightly Rambling Post

As I type, this post doesn't yet have a title. Why not? Because right now I'm not too sure what it's about. I quite like writing in this fashion, and am often surprised where things go. Anyway, in a short while there'll be a post; I'll read it, go "Ooh, fancy that!" and give it a title...

Yesterday morning I was down at Eypemouth first thing, eager to scour the newly arrived crests for multi-striped fellow travellers. It was still and foggy, the leaves all a-drip with moisture. I listened carefully for the high-pitched contact calls of migrant Goldcrests. Silence. Unfortunately I know 'birdless' when I hear it but persevered for a bit nonetheless. To no avail. Tellingly, the enthusiasm I'd brought with me, anticipating a bit of action, fizzled like a wet match. I'm a very long way from the fairly hardcore birder I once was.

So, home for breakfast.

By lunchtime the fog had lifted and the sun appeared. The afternoon plan was already laid.


I'd not been out for a proper ride in over five weeks. This fact, combined with a genetic trait known as 'see cake, eat cake' had conspired to make my trousers shrink. Something needed to be done. At a modest pace I rode to Seaton and back, a round trip of some 44 miles.

Coronation Corner on the Axe Estuary yesterday. In the distance, gulls. Mmmmm...

I've had people say things like "What!! Forty-four miles!!?? Amazing! You must be so fit!" Well, it's really not so amazing. Some time (and a couple of stone) ago I decided I didn't want to go the ever-expanding route of so many middle-aged contemporaries, with all its attendant health issues. Early sorties on the bike were admittedly short and hard, and left me thoroughly jelly-legged, but with time it all gets a great deal easier. I've really enjoyed pootling around the Devon/Dorset/Somerset lanes these last few years, and come to relish the challenge of a steep hill. You're right of course, it is all rather masochistic, and I appreciate that it's not for everyone. But if you have the kind of weakness for baked goods that I do, well, there are consequences.

One other thing. For me, cycling is usually a solitary pursuit. And pedalling is, I suppose, a metronomic activity. So perhaps it's not surprising that I find cycling really good for unwinding, for thinking. For thinking, say, of pithy titles that might fit a slightly rambling post...

Sunday 1 November 2015

In Search of a Patch

I moved to W Dorset in March and became patchless. This didn't matter initially, because my birding juices were all but dried up and had been for some time. But as October (and Scilly) approached I became aware of a familiar urge. I should adopt a patch, I thought. But where?
What about West Bexington, just a 15 minute drive along the coast?
Nope. Already taken.
West Bay then? Less than 10 minutes and the nearest bit of coast.
Nope. I shall say no more, but nope. Do you know West Bay?
Eype? About 10 minutes.
Hmmm. Tight little valley running down to the sea; well vegetated gully near the end. Coast path going both ways. I decided to give it a look.
Cliffs W of Eype, looking back to the village in the distance. Also sheep.

A distant Lyme Regis from Harcombe Beacon, which lies about a mile W of Eype

What shall I say? 'Promising' would be my tentative verdict. I like the habbo and have seen some birds, including 3 Wheatears on Oct 9 and a smart Firecrest in the Eypemouth gully three days ago.


Access is a bit fiddly and parking is atrocious. Teeny single-track road down to the sea and annoying, pay-all-year-you-sucker car park at the end.
Also, there are people. Quite a lot of people, even early in the morning. And that's October. I dread to think what August and September are like. And spring.
Plus it wouldn't provide what I would call year-round interest.
Worst of all, there are no gulls.