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...