Monday 29 May 2017

The Birding Reputation

So you want to be a birder? You've just forked out for some bins, a Collins Bird Guide and maybe a scope, and you're wondering how to go about acquiring a birding reputation? One definition of the word 'reputation' is 'the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something'. Those beliefs and opinions are of course held by other people, so when you very first head off down the local marsh or gravel pit with your shiny new optics it follows that you initially have no birding reputation at all, because nobody knows you yet. But don't worry; once you begin to interact with other birders your reputation will just come along naturally...

The question is, what kind of reputation do you want?

I suppose there are a few birders out there who couldn't care less whether or not they interact with anyone, and maybe have no interest in what kind of reputation they have. This post isn't for them. No, it's for you, the budding birder who wishes to become a respected member of the wider birding community. Incidentally, don't worry, if like me you do have mildly misanthropic tendencies you can still spend most of your birding time in your own wonderful company and yet still be an active (and hopefully respected) part of that community. Win-win, in my view. Anyway, I digress...

I am going to assume for the purposes of this post that the kind of reputation you wish to acquire is a good one. You would like to be known as a reliable, trustworthy birder. Yes? Okay, this is normal. Please read on.

Your reputation will be based on three main factors.

1. Your Ability to Identify Birds Correctly

First, understand this: everyone mucks up. There is not a birder alive who hasn't dropped a good few glorious clangers. Which is reassuring. And everyone accepts that beginners will get it wrong more often due to lack of experience. Time in the field should sort that out. I say 'should' because if it doesn't, your reputation will suffer. So if you don't want to be known as the eternal noddy, make an effort in this area. It's no surprise that some of the most solid bird ID reputations belong to artists, because they look very closely, they know their feather tracts and bird topography. To illustrate a particular age or plumage phase they have to learn it. Yes, effort. So, if you gain a reputation as rubbish at ID, well, that's probably down to you.

2. Your Ability to Find Good Birds

You will find good birds. Guaranteed. 'Good' = birds that are rare or scarce in your particular birding context. An Avocet or Grey Plover on an inland gravel pit would be decent finds, or a Snow Bunting on the concrete apron of a London reservoir. And so on. And when you find something a little trickier like, say, a Temminck's Stint, and correctly identify it, well, you are laying the foundation for a fine reputation.

Some birders excel at finding good birds, and are most definitely better at it than others. Why? Time in the field is no doubt a factor, combined with a dogged persistence, a robust work ethic and a knack of knowing where to look and when. Such birders can earn themselves an enviable reputation. Do you want one like that? If so you might be tempted to think that the more you find, the better your reputation will be. Well, possibly. Read on...

3. Your Ability to Verify Those Good Birds!

Twitchers love patch birders. Why? Because patch birders find really good birds in obscure little backwaters which the twitchers can then hurry along to look at and add to whichever list applies. Getting others to see your birds is one way to verify them. And let's be frank, sharing your good birds with others is also the most generous and satisfying way to verify them. If you don't agree then you are probably much further up the 'misanthrope' spectrum than me. The second way to verify your birds is to photograph them. Also good, and sometimes the only way.

First-winter Caspian Gull on the Axe Estuary, Dec 2009. Verified both ways.

Okay then. Taking all three factors into consideration gives us...

The Not Quite Scilly Birding Reputation Rule
Find and correctly identify lots of well-verified good birds, and you will certainly build a solid reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder. That's a promise.

So, there we have it, just follow the NQS Birding Reputation Rule and your future acceptance as a respected member of the wider birding community is guaranteed.

Oh, but before I go, just a few words of caution...

There is another kind of birding reputation, a kind far less desirable. There are several words for it - all of them pejorative - and believe me, you don't want it. As I mentioned earlier, your reputation will be based on the three main factors outlined above, so how exactly do they have a bearing on this exceedingly bad kind of reputation? Is it factor number 1? Is misidentifying stuff going to earn it? No, not really. It won't do you any favours, but hey, nobody's infallible. Is it factor number 2? Will you become a birding pariah if you don't find good birds? No. Lots of good birders don't find much, and everyone finds something. So is it factor number 3?

Oh yes, matey. It is factor number 3.

Now I cannot tell you exactly what kind of birding reputation I personally have, but I can tell you fairly precisely the degree to which my good birds are verified. For example, I just had a scan through the list of Devon Rarity descriptions I've written over the years. Excluding Yellow-legged Gulls and intermedius Lesser Black-backs (honestly, you don't want me to include them) I've written 36 descriptions for birds found and identified by me. Of that total, 23 were verified by other birders (and in several cases photos also) and 4 by photos alone. Of the 9 not verified, 3 were flyovers and 5 were while seawatching alone; the other was a Continental Coal Tit at Beer Head.

So my percentage verified = 27/36 = 75%

Over the years I have been privileged to know some very good birders, a few of them quite well. Birders whose reputations I would say are exceptionally good. I'll name a few. In the W London area: Andrew Moon, Chris Heard, the late Pete Naylor and Rupert Hastings. In Devon: Steve Waite, Phil Abbott, Ian McLean, Mike Langman, Matt Knott. This is not an exhaustive list, but simply intended to illustrate my point. I have known more than one of these birders to make a classic howler ID-wise, but such events do not in any way detract from their reputation (in fact quite the reverse) because the real cornerstone of that reputation is integrity, honesty. So, so many of their good birds are verified, and that is the crucial factor. Their birds are seen by others, photographed, some of them even stick around for a few days. You get the picture...

I would be curious to know their percentage verification, but in each case I would imagine we're looking at around 75% or better. And let's be clear, we're not just talking county or national rarities here, we're talking good birds generally.

An autumn Dartford Warbler on Beer Head. Not rare, but a decent bird in a local context...and verified both ways.

Finally then, let's suppose you are no longer a birding novice. A few years have elapsed and you now have a long and enviable list of self-found and correctly identified quality birds. Well done you! And periodically you add a few more little gems to that list. Marvellous! But how are you doing with factor number 3? What's your verification percentage like? Pretty high? 80% you say? Excellent! You will have earned a sound reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder.

Or is your verification percentage in fact pitifully low? Like, close to zero? We'll assume for argument's sake that you do interact with other birders in some way, yes? Oh, but there are several good reasons why other birders never see your birds, you say? And your camera is never to hand, you reckon? Well unfortunately - and whatever you might think otherwise - in that case I'm afraid your birding reputation is not the good kind...

Apply forthwith the NQSBRR and avoid such folly.

Sunday 28 May 2017

The Purple Patch is Over

Despite no blog posts for five days I have been out and have seen some birds. Best were 2 local Hobbies on Thursday - including my first from our house - and 2 of the many thousands of E Devon Red Kites on Wednesday. Visits to the Burton/Cogden patch were dead quiet. I tried a Red Kite vigil on Wednesday evening, but knew all along that I had missed the boat by several hours. Never mind though, because there is always a view...

Looking some 15+ miles SE: the greedy bird-magnet that is Portland Bill. I have hardly ever seen it as clearly as this; normally there is a haze or shimmer that makes it all blurry, whereupon it becomes just that little bit more distant and less enviable...

My most recent walk around the patch was in the blazing sun on Friday afternoon. Again, I took some photos...

Regular readers will know that I am a dragonfly dunce, but female Broad-bodied Chaser is just about within my compass.

"Oh, sweet painted lady..."

Significantly, no birds of note at all. It's now the time of year when locally I would expect pretty much nothing for the next few weeks. That expectation is based on experience in E Devon. Perhaps W Dorset will surprise me, but I doubt it. Mind you, everywhere is not the same. As I type birders at Spurn have been doing a bit of viz-migging today. Birds heading S so far include an Alpine Swift, a Red-rumped Swallow and four different Red-footed Falcons. Yes, four. A first-summer male, an adult male and 2 adult females. And yes, that's right, Spurn isn't normal. Normal right now is a lot of barrel-scraping and Lepidoptera.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Spring, Reps & Purple Patches

Although I hadn't visited the patch for a couple of days, I think this morning was my first Wheatear-less trip. So is that it? Is spring finished? Thankfully, no...

Turnstone in breeding finery. Legitimate spring migrant.

Apparently Turnstone is quite a scarce bird for the patch. This is my second, but the first one on the deck. It was also the best bird from this morning's walk. There were some other waders though: flocks of 1 and c.30 small ones flew W beyond identifiable range. So I guess spring is still very much with us in a sense, but I must admit that it's getting harder to stay motivated now. Still, there's always that chance of a late spring rarity. But how much of a chance? The answer's in the noun: rarity!

Ah well, there are plenty of modest Patchwork Challenge species to get excited about. Like the Jay I saw this morning. Jay takes my list to 101, and the single point puts me on 122, which I think is still 18th= on The Coastal South mini-league. And I can also work on my ever-growing portfolio of grainy #recordshots.

Green Woodpecker #recordshot. Although I've heard several already, this is the first I've clapped eyes on.

It has been mentioned that I've recently been enjoying something of a purple patch. And it's true, I have. Especially considering how long I'd been 'resting'. So here it is, roughly two weeks of jammy happenings:

2 May: Hoopoe
3 May: Cuckoo
5 May: Hobby in off
6 May: flock of 12 Pom Skuas
9 May: pod of c.20 Bottlenose Dolphins (not birds I know, but for me very scarce)
10 May: Hobby in off
12 May: 14 Pom Skuas (including flock of 9) plus an Arctic
16 May: Short-toed Lark (found by Mike and Alan)

I've included Cuckoo because it is genuinely scarce around here, and Hobby because they're always such a treat...and aren't exactly common. And anyway, birding value is always about context, and that little lot collectively felt like quite a jackpot.

And an interesting aside: apart from the Cuckoo, 1 Pom Skua and the Arctic there is supporting evidence for every single bird. They were either photographed, or witnessed by others, or both. Such evidence gives that whole list the ring of truth; who isn't going to believe my extra Pom, or the Arctic Skua or Cuckoo? This is an aspect of birding I find absolutely fascinating. One's reputation as a reliable, trustworthy observer is usually built on a solid foundation of authenticated records, whether we like it or not. And of course, a consistent lack of corroboration has the exact opposite effect. Quelle surprise! Come on you stringers! Wise up!

Ah, the Birding Reputation...

One of these days I shall write a post about this intriguing aspect of human nature...

Anyway, if you think that lot comprises a purple patch, allow me to share with you my favourite Local Patch Purple Patch, courtesy Steve Waite. I cannot recall all the dates but, starting 19 Feb, in just six months Steve found the following on the Seaton patch in 2007...

19 Feb: Ring-billed Gull, 2nd-winter on the Axe
Feb: Laughing Gull, 1st-winter off the seafront, paying us a visit from Exmouth
April: Stone-curlew, Seaton Marshes, first for the patch and first twitchable in Devon for a thousand years.
28 April: Iberian Chiffchaff, Beer Head
30 April: Bonaparte's Gull, 1st-summer on the Axe
Then there was a little pause [imagine a quiet drum roll, slowly building...]
14 August: Audouin's Gull, adult (or nearly), Seaton Marshes

And it's quite possible I've forgotten something. Anyway, that is a purple patch.

And in all that time I think I managed to find a Glaucous Gull...

So, if you ever catch Steve moaning on his blog about how grim things are for him birding-wise right now or something, just pop a comment in there reminding him how he used up most of his allowance ten years ago!

Friday 19 May 2017

One Hundred Up...

At sunrise I ticked off my 100th species for the Burton/Cogden patch. I now have 121 Patchwork Challenge points, putting me around 18th for the Coastal South mini-league. Budleigh is currently nowhere...

The landmark bird was a Grey Heron.

Heron is designated a 'scarce visitor' to West Bexington and Cogden, and I first spotted this one circling high before descending to land on the seaward edge of Burton Mere - basically a big reedbed - where I am sure the resident Marsh Frogs were delighted to see it. Within a couple of minutes it was up again and gone.

This little episode is yet one more which illustrates the many differences between my new patch and my old one. The status of Grey Heron on the Axe is somewhat different, and is influenced by the presence of a thriving heronry! Another is the beach. Cogden beach is simply wonderful. The combination of shingle with a mass of vegetation - Thrift, Sea Kale, Yellow Horned-poppy, Sea Campion, as well as a myriad others whose identity is beyond me - reminds me ever so much of Dungeness. I haven't been to Dunge for 20-odd years I guess, but nevertheless that's the vibe I get. The Dungeness shingle attracts the occasional bird, and it seems like Cogden should too. Oh look! A Short-toed Lark! See? Seaton beach does not compare. There is a promising stretch from the Yacht Club to the river mouth, but Cogden it ain't. This morning's beach walk produced a single Wheatear, the tamest yet for me. So...

Uncropped. Well close! But still a #recordshot
Still uncropped. Even closer! I reckon we could get a portrait out of this...
Et voila!
So eye-wateringly close that you can see it's little tummy feathers are damp with dew, bless it.

And while we're on cute little birdies, here's a photo I took last week...

Fluffy Ball Thing. A solid Patchwork point there.

Actually I was rather chuffed to find this, because a short while back I had a very fleeting view of a Tawny Owl which I'd inadvertantly flushed, and then moments later spotted the nest box. Of course I put two and two together and was much more careful when next in that location. Result!

There is still much to learn about my new patch. For example on Wednesday Alan showed me a nice patch of orchids which I had unwittingly walked past several times. Here's one...

Southern Marsh Orchid apparently.

The Axe patch may well have had Southern Marsh Orchid (up on Axe Cliff perhaps?) but I cannot recall for sure. However, one thing it definitely didn't have was any of these little stunners...

Marsh Frog. Serious paintwork.
Heron? What Heron?

Finally, dear reader, if you were very quick off the mark it's just possible that you saw an early and ill-judged version of the last post. If so please erase it from your mind. As Jonathan Lethbridge intimates in his comment, not all patchworkers subscribe to the ethos outlined therein, and it's all too easy to allow oneself to be wound up by such folk. But of course the wisest approach is simply to ignore them. And...slowly, slowly...I am learning wisdom.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

Patchbirding Ethos...Some Thoughts

The weather forecast for today was spot on. Rain. Loads and loads of rain. Sometimes a late spring downpour and a bit of murk has brought us waders. So I grabbed my wellies, my bins, my ancient and inadequate waterproofs and headed for Burton Bradstock. The plan was a long walk of the beach to sift the vast flocks I would doubtless find there...

It's exactly like this all the way to Portland, except the pebbles gradually get larger...

Well, I soon got fed up with that plan! No waders on the beach, no decent birds on/over the sea. Perhaps predictably I found myself shuffling along the top of the beach and turning up the Short-toed Lark, in pretty much the same area that it favoured yesterday. And I'm pretty sure the Wheatear not far away was yesterday's bird too. As a nice bonus I could hear a Cuckoo up on the inland slope somewhere. I tweeted out the Short-toed Lark and Cuckoo gen, and trudged onwards...

Richard from Charmouth let me know he was planning to come over and try for the lark, so I loitered around until he arrived. When looking for a needle in a haystack, two pairs of eyes are certainly better than one. The bird eventually gave some quite good, if distant views, and Richard got some #recordshots. As Short-toed Lark was a lifer for him I was glad it had performed okay. We also heard the Cuckoo again, came across 2 Wheatears that seemed to be new in, and in the end discovered actual waders on the beach - a Ringed Plover and a Sanderling. So, hardly a wealth of abundance and variety, but it certainly beat sitting indoors!

I think at this point the sea and I are equally wet

Richard mentioned that he would publish on Twitter any reasonable photos of the Short-toed Lark, so I had a browse later and found this:

Well, the photo is delightfully #recordshot in every possible way, but it was the caption which caught my eye. As I said, this was a lifer for Richard. Last week he found the 9 Poms Skuas which then gave us all a thrill from Seaton to the Solent. Pom was also a lifer. I hardly ever get lifers these days and maybe I've forgotten what it's like to be at that stage in birding when there are potential ticks popping up all over the place because your list is still so slim. As an on/off birder (and ex-twitcher) of some 40+ years standing I have seen quite a few Short-toed Larks. I've just had a mental tot-up and surprised myself: at least 16. So while seeing the bird again today was great, the real pleasure for me was helping Richard see it. Which got me thinking...

When I was living in Seaton and birding the Axe Estuary etc, I can recall lots of occasions when other local birders really put themselves out to make sure that as many of us as possible got to see a good bird. For example, instead of heading off and continuing their birding circuit they would wait, hang around, and if necessary even keep the bird in their scope, until you rolled up and they could point you at it. Or, for a bird in cover, or where there was a risk of flushing perhaps, patiently delay until everyone who was available had arrived, and then together try and find it.

This is the kind of patch birding ethos which I am used to, and it was also evident yesterday at Cogden. Mike Morse had wasted no time in texting me about the (at the time 'possible') Short-toed Lark. Alan was able to wait and help me look for it, as well as point out where they'd seen it, etc. Mike had also publicised it on Twitter, despite the lack of a solid ID, to alert a wider audience. And the reason for this effort to be helpful? Because when you see a decent bird, and maybe especially when you find a rare or scarce one, you want others to see it! It is perfectly natural that you want to share the occasion, and most will put themselves out in order to do so. In my experience making the effort to share a good bird does in fact give you a great deal of pleasure, and at least part of the reason for that is because it gives others pleasure. Everyone wins.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Happy as a Lark!

I was out early again this morning, down to the sea for a quick look and then a fairly brisk walk to Cogden and back. The sea was very quiet indeed, with a single Great Northern Diver flying W the major highlight, and the walk was no better. I did manage 2 Patchwork Challenge points via a lone Shag bobbing about offshore and a vocal Red-legged Partridge [Edit: 3 points actually. Shag is worth 2]. The beach was conspicuously devoid of Wheatears, which reminded me that we are now getting just the last dribblings of the spring flood. However, about half way along the beach I learned from a glance at Twitter that Portland Bill was hosting a Golden Oriole, which in turn reminded me that along with those dribblings you also get the occasional great big glob of quality. I wondered if one of those might be hunkered down on the patch somewhere...

It's 10:40. A text from Mike Morse:

'Possible Short-toed Lark on beach at Cogden east of line with boardwalk...have made six passes of the beach and can't relocate it though...if it's flown inland we're stuffed...'

I phoned Mike for the gory details. It sounded really, really good. Certainly much better than a 'possible' to my ears. A 'very probable' in fact, though I could understand exactly why he felt it was not quite claim-worthy. I arranged to head down there straight away. Although Mike needed to leave, I would help Alan search for it.

And search we did. Up and down the beach, walking nice and slow, several yards apart. Nothing. Eventually Alan too had to go, so I walked with him all the way to the West Bexington mere, a long way past my usual limit. We parted, and I turned back towards Cogden. Although I was resigned to the big fat dip, I also had a strong feeling that the bird might well still be on the beach somewhere and my intention was to try and cover as much of it as I reasonably could; the habbo is just so perfect for something like a Short-toed Lark. After a while I came across a Wheatear. Well, that had managed to avoid me thus far, so perhaps there was still hope for the lark. Suddenly a small bird flew from the ridge of the beach on my left, away ahead of me at a slight angle, landing 50 or 60 yards distant behind a clump of sea kale. I'd got nothing on it apart from 'small', so just trained my bins on the spot, more or less expecting the inevitable Linnet. And then I realised I could see its head through a gap in the leaves. Not a Linnet! It was alert and motionless for several long seconds, then seemed to relax, and slowly walked into view. Quite distant for bins alone, but no question, it was a Short-toed Lark.

Job number one: #recordshot...

Short-toed Lark, in almost all its very small and pixellated glory

Job number two: make the calls!

After what seemed an age, Alan, and then Mike, reappeared. I had stayed well away from the bird, but within a minute or so of my refinding it the lark had flown another 15-20 yards and out of view. I thought I knew roughly where it was, but when we tried to locate it there was no sign. Once again we began to comb the beach, and finally, finally, it showed properly for Alan and Mike. By now I was pretty rain-soaked, and left them to it. Mike too got a #recordshot with his proper camera...

Nicely captures the blobby black smudge on the side of the neck (photo: Mike Morse)

Arriving back at the van I bumped into Ian McLean from Seaton. West Bexington & Cogden is Ian's old patch, and he is evidently still intent on keeping the ex-patch ticks coming! Yes, Short-toed Lark is a perhaps overdue addition to the Bex/Cogden list. I am delighted to have been involved. Happy as a lark in fact...

I later heard that the little cracker was successfully twitched by several, and a lifer for at least one. I was chuffed at that too. Brilliant.

Finally, Ian M remarked that I seem to be enjoying a bit of a Purple Patch at the moment. I cannot deny it!

Monday 15 May 2017

Patchwork Challenge 2017

Patchwork Challenge is a friendly competition based on points scored for each species that you record on your chosen patch. The commonest birds score 1 point, the rarest 5, and for birds that score 3 or more you get double points if you are also the finder. Hoopoe is a 3-pointer, so if I'd been competing in the Patchwork Challenge my thrilling encounter on 2 May would have earned me 6 Patchwork points. It is quite impossible to live a happy life knowing that you are missing out on such bounty, so of course I've signed up and registered a patch.

I've called the patch Burton/Cogden.

As I said, Patchwork Challenge is a friendly competition, so I was quite eager to see who my competitors in the Coastal South Mini-League might be. To give it some relevance I focused only on those patches that fall between Portland and the Exe (that's the eastern two-thirds of Lyme Bay) and which appear to be currently active. Starting at the western end we first have Chris Townend at Budleigh Salterton, then Steve Waite with Axe Estuary & Seaton, Brendan Sheils with Charmouth, myself at Burton/Cogden, and finally Joe Stockwell with Ferrybridge to Weymouth. Five local patches of diverse nature and potential, but all within around 40 miles of coastline.

As a keen competitor my next move was to see how my fellow patchers were doing thus far. I don't know them all personally but that doesn't matter; it is those all-important lists that I'm interested in! What had I missed during the first winter period and early spring as a result of my late start? What envious goodies did they have? But before I got carried away with close analysis I thought I had first better look at the numbers...

As of this morning, here are the current scores:

Patch Species Score
Ferrybridge to Weymouth 154 200
Axe Estuary & Seaton 152 194
Charmouth 105 126
Budleigh Salterton 97 113
Burton/Cogden 94 111

Having effectively started in late April it is hardly surprising that I'm last. Joe and Steve are miles out in front at Weymouth and Seaton. Given the superb mix of habitat on both patches this is no shock either.

Next then, what goodies? I thought I'd begin with 3-pointers or better...

Ferrybridge to Weymouth
Joe has a terrific collection: Spotted Crake, Serin, Red-rumped Swallow, Sibe Chiff and Cattle Egret, all 3-pointers. No finds as far as I can see, so no bonus points.

Axe Estuary & Seaton
Steve has self-found Sibe Chiff and Cattle Egret, so an extra 3+3 bonus points for those.

Brendan had a Cattle Egret fly past on 5 Feb, which means 3 bonus points too.

Budleigh Salterton
No 3+ pointers yet for Chris.

The Hoopoe on 2 May earned me 6 points including the bonus.

In practical terms Burton/Cogden is in no position to compete with either 'Ferrybridge to Weymouth' or the 'Axe Estuary & Seaton'. Both patches are simply too rich in habitat and potential, and each is no doubt worked by several other birders likely to turn up goodies for Joe and Steve to add to their lists. So I shall set my competitive sights somewhere more realistic...

How about Charmouth?

Charmouth is the nearest patch to mine. Potential-wise I would have thought it is fairly similar. A lot of passerine habbo, a nice stretch of coast and not much fresh water. Yes, perhaps Brendan will unwittingly be a worthy adversary...

With 105 species in the Charmouth bag already I thought it might be instructive to see what I was missing. Well, I was in for a shock. Charmouth is absolutely on fire!! Brendan's haul predictably includes the complete set of regular spring passerine migrants like Tree Pipit, Redstart, Whinchat, Spot Fly etc, but also scarce ones like Ring Ouzel and Pied Flycatcher. Nice. But this isn't all. Sifting through the list I also found Woodlark, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wood Warbler and Nightingale, Twite and Corn Bunting! In order to appreciate why I am so blown away I should probably give the reader an idea of the local status of some of these species. My old haunts the Axe Estuary, Seaton, Beer Head etc are not a million miles away from Charmouth, and I would say compare pretty well in terms of relative status:

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker I don't know any birders who have seen or heard one locally for at least ten years. [Personally I thought they were all gone from this part of the country now, so a drumming, calling male was a bit of a surprise.]
Wood Warbler Just one spring bird in at least the last ten years.
Nightingale Forget it! None, ever. They used to breed on the Axmouth to Lyme Undercliffs until a few years before I moved down here. Since then a total drought.
Twite Steve had an autumn flyover at Beer Head once. Much envy. Otherwise - again - forget it! A lot of E Devon birders would move very quickly for a Twite. And maybe some W Dorset ones too??
Corn Bunting An autumn bird on Beer Head once. First for the patch, that we knew of. Twitched from at least Exmouth. [They do breed near Dorchester, and are scarce visitors to Portland.]
Ring Ouzel Very scarce in spring; one every 3 or 4 years maybe?

You get the idea. As I said, on fire...

When I'd recovered from this battering of quality I had a look at the gaps. Again, some real surprises. No Pheasant? Must be an error. Also I distinctly recall Brendan tweeting about a flock of 16 Waxwings back in January, along with the #PWC2017 and #patchgold tags (a cry of triumph if ever there was one!) but Waxwing is a glaring gap on the current Charmouth patch list. Another oversight, surely? The only waders are Snipe, Jack Snipe and Woodcock. And finally, no seabirds! Apart from Med Gull and Cormorant there is not a single bird that you might have to look offshore to see. No Gannet, no Common Scoter, nothing.

Given its current amazing form I dread to think what will be found when eyes on the Charmouth patch turn seawards...

Altogether a very singular list. Perhaps in a league of its own.

Somehow I really don't think I am able to compete with Charmouth, and will henceforth ignore it...

Which leaves Chris Townend at Budleigh Salterton. Admittedly Budleigh does have an estuary and on paper might have a better list potential than Burton/Cogden, but we shall see. If you read this, Chris, game on!

Standing on Cogden Beach, looking W and contemplating the gruelling task ahead. #PWC2017

Saturday 13 May 2017

The Final Tally?

After the morning's Pom bonanza yesterday, I couldn't resist another look in the evening. In previous springs I've sometimes done okay late in the day. It was worth the effort, with a distant pale phase Pom Skua past E at 17:35 and a nice dark phase Arctic at 18:11. So my skua total for the day was 15, comprising 14 Poms and one Arctic. That's a ridiculous 26 Pomarine Skuas in the last week, compared with my Seaton total of 17 in countless hours of seawatching across 10+ years! I am slightly mind-boggled...

Burton Bradstock, yesterday morning at 06:45. As you can tell from the old towel hastily fetched from my van as a concession to my protesting backside, I haven't yet sussed a comfy seawatching perch at Burton...

Friday 12 May 2017

Sharing is Caring

I should definitely play my hunches more often. I was down at Burton Bradstock beach not long after 05:00 and, despite the pathetically gentle onshore breeze, was absolutely brimming with confidence. Yesterday morning I did an hour and twenty minutes in two bites, and my highlights were flocks of 6 and 22 Common Scoters. Poor. Yet Pom Skuas were reported here and there; Steve had one at Seaton finally! Even 2 Long-tailed Skuas popped up along the S coast - the nearest at Berry Head, Devon. I just had a strong hunch that there would be some more Poms pitching up in Lyme Bay later in the day, making an early start essential...

However, by 06:00 I'd managed no more than just a few Common Scoters and a Great Crested Grebe. It was very slow. I began to worry that if there were going to be any skuas I might only get one chance, and I didn't want to accidentally miss it because I was looking at Twitter or playing Minesweeper or something. A heads-up from the West would be nice. I texted Steve...

06:02 'R u seawatching Stevie??'
06:03 'Do I need to be? Is it busy?'
06:03 'Ha ha! Not so far!'
06:04 'Just doesn't seem as good weather conditions as forecasted?'

Steve was right. Hardly a breath of wind. It didn't look promising at all. And yet...

At that precise moment a very distant bird appeared above the horizon and climbed rapidly, coming straight towards me. "Is that a Whimbrel?" I thought. It then stopped abruptly, turned E and sailed gently down to land on the sea. A skua! Too far out to ID, but definitely a skua.

Some more tippy-tappy...

06:06 'Mind you, just had my first v distant skua, has landed on sea...'
 [note 'first' skua. Confidence!]
06:07 'Oh there's no harm in me popping down for an hour is there...'
06:08 'Let me know when the Long-tailed comes past!'

Ah, if only...

I kept an eye out where the skua had landed, and after a little while picked up two familiar shapes cruising E, low to the waves. I had to zoom right up to clinch them, but definitely 2 Poms; I assumed my initial sighting had been one of these two.

06:16 '2 distant Poms E'

Soon we were chatting on the phone, talking up the potential and generally being wishful, when my scope eye was suddenly full of Pom! Another two fully-spooned stunners were muscling E at no more than 2-300 yards! I rang off a bit abruptly. Brilliant!

Then it was Steve's turn...

06:29 '9 Poms on sea off Spot-on'

Steve was so excited he inadvertently sent it twice!

NINE!! Shortly we were talking on the phone again. All nine had evidently taken off, circled over the Spot-on kiosk, directly above Steve and Richard, the only two birders seawatching there, and then headed my way! To say Steve was ecstatic would be an understatement. I now had the heads-up I had been hoping for.

At 07:05 they came past me. Simply superb. Probably 400 yds plus, low to the waves, powering eastwards with seemingly no effort. All pale phase birds except one, which I guess was intermediate-ish, and I reckon all or nearly all of them had full spoons. In a previous post I promised birdy #recordshots, so duly made the effort...

I reckon a couple of those specks actually look Pom-shaped. Amazing. I can only make out 8 in the photo, but even that's a minor miracle.

With the aid of the technological marvel that is Twitter, those 9 Poms were tracked all along the S coast from Seaton, via James McCarthy at Lyme Regis, via me at Burton, all and sundry at Portland Bill, and on round past Hurst Point in Hampshire and into the Solent. I'm not sure how far they got after that, but they do appear to have stopped for a breather somewhere before Selsey Bill. It was great to be aware of the shared experience and, as I've yet to meet a birder who isn't fired up by seeing skuas, to know that a lot of fellow birders were on cloud nine this morning!

Something weird is happening. Has birding changed dramatically while I've been away, or something? Because I am seeing LOADS more decent birds than used to be the case.

Tuesday 9 May 2017

How to Count Birds. Lesson 1: Flocks

There were waders on the beach early this morning. Quite a few. Three different sorts too. As all birders know, it's not just the species name that you make a note of but also how many. Counting is important. In fact counting is vital. Why? Because the accurate counting of birds is an identifying mark of the true birder. Witness the three seawatching buddies faced with a writhing flock of Common Scoter going past. The true birder will rise to the occasion...

- What do you reckon guys? About 60?
- Yeah, something like that, maybe even more. Derek?
- Sixty-seven.

Yes, Derek is a true birder. But just in case there was still doubt, he adds:

- Including twenty-eight adult drakes.

Don't you just hate him?

I am not a true birder. I am in fact Mr Ballpark. If a flock of 67 Common Scoter flies past me I am usually busy trying to detect the flash of white secondaries. My count will be extremely circa. Mind you, if the flock numbers 20 or less I will do the best I can to count it properly; I'm not completely useless. So, when faced with a flock of waders on a beach, what does one do? What do I do? Well, it depends, as the following #recordshots illustrate...

Ringed Plover. This was in a flock of one. Even I was untroubled here.

Sanderling. This was one of several. They were running about a lot, rather quickly, and I was struggling. Eventually I settled on nine. They then flew along the beach together of their own accord. Much better. There were ten.

Whimbrel. Lots of them. When I first arrived this morning a flock of 23 Whimbrel took to the air off the lower beach for some unknown reason and then drifted back down in the same area and landed out of sight. I thought to myself "23 Whimbrel. Nice. I must check them out later and see if I can get a #recordshot." Upon my return I found this lot, considerably more than 23. Actually this is only some of them. The others are out of shot, or hidden behind shingle ridges and bigger, fatter Whimbrel. Nightmare.

I thought perhaps if I got closer to them, the hidden ones would be visible and I could count them properly. I could see there were more than 40. I tried it...

As you can see, it doesn't help to get closer. The hidden ones just crouch right down, and your field of view is restricted to just a few birds at a time. Dreadful.

I know what you're thinking.
"Make them fly! Boot 'em! Get them up, UP! Then you'll see how many there are."

But it's not as simple as that, not when there are loads of them...

See? Awful!!

There had to be another way...

And then I remembered a trick I'd pulled in order to count a huge flock of Golden Plover back on the Axe. Get them up properly. Right up. Make them dots.

And then take a photo. Take a photo, blow it up, and count the dots at your leisure.

So I ran down the beach, screaming, and they all fled inland...

Exactly 60 Whimbrel.

So yes, 60 Whimbrel. And I'm glad I have the evidence too, because no one believes counts that end in zero. Obviously you struggled with accuracy, and rounded up. Not a true birder.

PS. I'm sure the following caveat is unnecessary, but just in case: before anyone comments adversely on my seemingly questionable birding ethics, don't believe everything you read on NQS.


Not a Barwit. Rubbish photos can lie.

Monday 8 May 2017

Vaguely Serious Birding and Record Shots

On April 1st I wrote this:

"In a way it's a shame that I just cannot seem to get the birdy juices flowing right now, but I take consolation from the fact that it has happened before; the interest has merely diminished, not died."

And yet here I am just a few weeks later, apparently a full-on birder once again. I must be a nightmare to live with...

I think it was the Redstart which got things rolling. And of course, finding a Hoopoe is basically a class A drug, and I am in serious trouble. Talking of serious, my birding approach has definitely gone up a notch. It is now somewhere on the 'serious' spectrum. But not fully serious. For example, I have begun to cart the camera around with me, but still not the scope. After all, the camera is a piddling little bridge jobbie that weighs about two ounces, whereas the scope/tripod combo tips the scales at almost a hundredweight. I will regret this decision one day. I have in the past, so I know it's only a matter of time before some goody slips through the net because I can't be bothered to carry a scope. Just this morning I had to let a trio of divers go - simply too far out for my bins. I suppose I'd better think about manning up before the inevitable happens.

Anyway, in the meantime here is a post about some not-quite-fully-serious birding...

I'm glad I've decided to take the camera with me because it means I can illustrate my birdy posts with lots of record shots. And 'record shots' is exactly what the vast majority will be. Here is about the very best you can expect:

Stonechat. Not a record shot. No. This is a portrait.

More likely you will get stuff like this:

A Hobby coming in-off on May 5th. At this point it is still well out over the sea. When it decided to make landfall it shot past way too quickly for my camera-pointing skills.

And some more:

Gorgeous Grey Plover on Cogden beach, May 5th.
Wall, Cogden, also May 5th. I know it's a butterfly, not a bird, but 'rubbish pose' and 'highly cropped' are both on the list of #recordshot criteria
Common Sand, Cogden, May 3rd

Which brings us to this morning. Yet another bright and sunny start to the day, with a biting NE wind. Although I was only out for a couple of hours or so before work, I wished I had longer as there was obviously a lot going on. Waders on the beach for a start, as well as passing by. Several little groups of Dunlin and Sanderling. Quite hard to count but I settled for 27 Dunlin and 22 Sanderling. Also a handful of Whimbrel; I ended up with seven.

A Whimbrel legging it, because I'm pretty scary and much too close for comfort.
10 Sanderling. In the true spirit of #recordshot the birds are not only small but also blurry.

There were also passerines. It's funny, whenever you've been out and done a bit of birding, and then later on read the counts of migs at Portland for that day - you know, '10 Redstarts, 15 Whinchats, 60 Willow Warblers, 5 Yellow Wags, etc' - it's so easy to think you must have been walking about with your eyes closed. I have to remind myself that Portland clearly acts like the spout of a funnel, and concentrates birds that would otherwise be across a broad front. Also, there will likely be lots of birders out in the field all day, going through the habbo like a giant flea comb. Whereas most of us are birding what amounts to the mouth of the funnel, for only a small part of the day, with just one or two others or perhaps on our own. So when you walk a mile of coastline and see a Whitethroat skimming across the sea towards the beach, and a Willow Warbler flitting through the sea kale, and a few jumpy Wheatears on the shingle, and a steady trickle of hirundines zipping past, and it's evidently all going off to some extent...well, you can safely assume you're going to see about three percent of it all! Or less!

I saw 7 Willow Warblers, 7 Wheatears, 1 Whinchat, 2 Sedge Warblers, and 1 Spotted Flycatcher. I would say that apart from one of the Sedgies they were all new arrivals, along with at least 1 Whitethroat. Add to that a few other passerines which made landfall too far away to be identifiable. So, using the Three-Percent-or-Less Rule, I can confidently extrapolate my counts to 230 Willow Warblers, 230 Wheatears, 30 Whincats, 30 Sedge Warblers and 30 Spotted Flycatchers. Which is much more like it.

One of the 30 Whinchats on patch today...
...and one of the 30 Spotted Flycatchers likewise.

Saturday 6 May 2017

Pom Party

Everyone loves a skua, especially a fully spooned-up spring Pom. So it was very nice to see this tweet from Mike Morse early yesterday evening...

As regular readers will know, West Bexington is just a mile or two E of my chosen patch. So of course I was a little bit gripped. But at the same time I was rather pleased. How come? Well, I know I'm leaving myself open to accusations of being unbearably smug after the fact here, but I predicted exactly this scenario at exactly this time. Yep, Poms past the patch, late on Friday. Not out loud, not in print anywhere, but quietly to myself. And if my free time late yesterday hadn't been compromised by a prior engagement I would have been at Burton Bradstock from about 4:30 pm. Honest!

This was because several days ago the weather forecast indicated that the mostly NE wind we've been having for a while would move a bit more easterly on Friday, with roughly due East (and quite brisk) set for late afternoon/evening. I was optimistic of some Pom action, and earmarked the slot for a nice seawatch...and then we got invited out. But the forecast held good, and look what went and happened!

Although I'd missed out on that chance, I was aware that a small number of Poms had passed Portland over the last few days, so they were definitely on the move still. I therefore hoped that the Bex birds weren't the only ones to have been pushed a little further E than usual, and that despite the wind reverting to a rather unhelpful NE again, one or two might do the decent thing and come past early this morning. In fact I more than 'hoped', I was borderline confident, and set the alarm for 5:30.

Arriving in the Burton Bradstock car park about 5:50 I faffed about a bit trying to find somewhere comfy to sit down out of the wind, eventually settling on a spot on the beach, with my back to a wall. I then fiddled about with the scope, getting the legs set right, getting it level, and so on. Like an old woman. Eventually I aimed it at the horizon and tweaked the focus. As I did so a distant bird reared up above the waves. A skua! Literally the first bird I clapped eyes on! It banked slightly and I could see it was a pale phase, but there were clearly no spoons. Must be an Arctic, surely. Suddenly, in the same field of view, another appeared. Also pale, also spoonless. But two together? Could they be Poms? The birds were still distant, but evidently coming towards me. A better view of one bird convinced me that it had shortish, but blunt tail projections; it was a Pom. At this point another two birds appeared. Strewth! A flock! I quickly scanned left, and could hardly believe my eyes when the four became seven! All pale phase, at least a couple sporting full spoons. Absolutely magnificent! I heard myself talking out loud again: "SEVEN Poms!! Wow!!" and stuff a bit like that...

By now the flock was drifting slowly westwards and I realised they would probably be out of view before coming close enough for really crippling views...and then it dawned on me that the first two I'd seen might not actually have been the lead birds. Quickly I swung the scope well right and scanned slowly back again. The scope was suddenly full of Poms, all up above the horizon now, and quite tightly grouped. I struggled to count them. Eleven! And then another cruised in from the left. Twelve! TWELVE! I could scarcely believe my eyes...

When they had disappeared from view I punted out a tweet, plus a text to Steve over at Seaton. I really hoped they'd keep moving W and make someone else's day too. But nothing happened. Steve wondered if they'd drifted back S, or even gone overland. And then came a tweet from the opposite direction at 8:15: '12 Poms through Chesil Cove heading east...' It seemed a bit unfair really.

Steve reckons I've always been a bit jammy with Poms. This may well be true (and I'm always happy to accept any jam going) but in my defence I have to point out that this morning's jam was genuinely the result of a plan. Of course, plans don't always come good, but once in a while they do, and when that happens I am big-headed enough to enjoy taking credit! Mind you, another five minutes faffing and I would have been bemoaning yet another failure. Okay, it was possibly a little bit fluky then...

So, context: I don't know how often Lyme Bay sees a double-figure flock of Pomarine Skuas, but 'not very' is my guess. It's certainly my first anywhere. I once had a flock of nine, I think it was, at Dungeness in May 1990. And I'm pretty sure that is my only previous flock, with all my other Poms ones and twos. From Seaton they were very scarce. I had a puny total of 17 on 13 dates, with just 12 birds (8 dates) in spring. That's in about 10 years of sporadically moderate effort.

Which is why this brief little encounter with those absolutely stunning birds has got itself a whole fat post of its own.

Finally, if I'd missed the Poms this was my seawatch (05:55 - 07:25): 1 Grey Plover W, 3 Cormorants W, 1E, 2 Shelduck W, 4 Common Scoter E, 3 Mute Swans E, 3 BHGs E, 1 Kittiwake loitering, handful of Manxies likewise.

Yep, Grey Plover would have been the highlight.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Powerful Urges

Readers of this blog may have noticed a very slight decline in the standard of my birdy pics. To make amends for trying your patience thus, I have blagged this so-so shot of yesterday's Hoopoe from Mike Morse...

Just wow! (Thanks Mike!)

I first saw this on Twitter yesterday. Straight away I poured it carefully into a tall glass and stirred in every last ounce of buzz that I got from finding it. A heady brew. I am still under its influence and subject to long-forgotten and powerful urges...

Which is why I was up at first light and out birding by about 5:30!

Migrants too are subject to powerful urges. Despite a brisk headwind no doubt making the Channel crossing a right drag, they still come. Relentlessly. However, being a bit knackered after all that, they sensibly pause for a breather rather than rush off northwards immediately. I counted 14 Wheatears between Burton Bradstock and Cogden. My highest ever May count on the Seaton patch was 6! A Common Sandpiper and a rather grey Willow Warbler added to the interest. I had to be gone by 7:30 but the evident action had me vowing to return later if I could...

At 3pm I was back at the Hive Beach car park in Burton Bradstock. As I tied my boots a Yellow Wag flew over calling. There were Wheatears on the grassy slopes still. Excellent! A long walk later I had a very pleasing tally of birds to savour: 9 Wheatears, 1 Yellow Wag, 1 Whinchat, 2 Spot Flys, 1 Garden Warbler (seen, not singing), c15 Willow Warblers, 4 singing Lesser Whitethroats, 1 Cuckoo, plus brief views of an accidentally-flushed Tawny Owl.

I was on the inland edge of the patch when the Cuckoo flew straight past me and headed down towards the sea, disappearing over a hedge. To give this some context, here is my record with spring Cuckoos on the Seaton patch: 2 heard in 2005 (April 21 and May 15) and one flying E at Beer Head, being mobbed by a Pied Wag, on April 19, 2007. And that's it. Plus I have never seen or heard one in all the countless springtime hours I've spent working outdoors locally. So it is 10 years since I've seen a spring Cuckoo in these parts, and today's is only my 2nd in 15 springs! I've seen more Hoopoes!!

A good day.

My van is booked in for a service tomorrow morning, but there is plenty of daylight available before it's due at the garage. And if I can get up early, there will be urges. Powerful ones...

Tuesday 2 May 2017


As I mentioned in the previous post, there has been some birding. Not serious birding you understand, but whatever the opposite of serious birding is. Half-hearted. Lightweight. No scope, no camera, no note-taking. Superficial birding then. Flippant, even. So basically I really, really didn't deserve what happened this morning...

But first I need to set the scene.

Back on April 21st I popped over to Cogden for a walk. I took my bins and was pleased to note 7 Whitethroats, a couple of singing Lesser Whitethroats and a single Wheatear. Also a Whimbrel was prodding about in a field and - best of all - a Grasshopper Warbler was reeling away in a hedgerow. All very pleasant, and typical spring fare locally. This nice collection of birds kindled sufficient enthusiasm to get me down to Cogden early enough on 23rd to see the sunrise. But instead of driving to the Cogden Beach NT car park I headed for Burton Bradstock; I've always felt the Cogden car park is a bit too vulnerable to opportunist thievery to feel 100% happy leaving the motor there, and anyway, it means I get to cover a short strip of the coast that possibly no one else does. A strategy which paid off very handsomely this morning...

I'm getting ahead of myself.

So anyway, on April 23rd I followed the coast to Cogden, walked a little circuit, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Between 6 and 8am I tallied 11 Wheatears, c6 Willow Warblers, 1 Whinchat, 1 Grasshopper Warbler, 1 Peregrine, a handful of Swallows and a spanking male Redstart. I was chuffed to see the Whinchat and almost all the Wheatears right on the beach, newly arrived. Migration in action. Superb! The Peregrine was only my second local bird; it's not like Seaton, where they're an almost daily occurrence. And the Redstart, well...

It was one of the last birds I saw. A line of gorse at the top of a slope, and as I walked along it I'd already been made to raise my bins two or three times by the ubiquitous Linnets. And then, not a Linnet.
"Oh yes! You beauty!"
I actually said that out loud, which surprised me. Surprised me enough to mentally note that I had said it out loud. I think I'm going soft. Mind you, a spring male Redstart, fresh in, really is hard to beat, isn't it.

Still, something was happening. My shrivelled little birdy gland was trying hard to get some juices going. Just after the Redstart (which vanished pretty sharpish) I saw my final Wheatear, and even tried to take a photo with my pathetic phone camera...

Tiny bird, big habbo

I didn't get out last week, but as the weekend approached I found myself feeling a little frustrated. Why? Because the weather looked like it was shaping up for a good seawatch on Sunday, and I was heading to Wiltshire for a few days and would therefore miss it all. I had depressing visions of Pom skuas piling along the coast in vast flocks whilst I was many miles inland. As it turned out there were hardly any skuas at all, let alone Poms, so I missed very little in the end. But the fact that the prospect of doing so bothered me a bit was rather telling.

And so to this morning.

I hadn't planned to go birding at all, but was up at 6:30, early enough to make it a viable option. Parking at Burton Bradstock I headed along the coast. There's a small caravan park between Burton Bradstock and Cogden. It runs right down to the coast path, and there are nice strips of lawn between the caravans. Perfect for a Hoopoe really, a possibility that has genuinely occurred to me. Ambling along I was suddenly aware that I'd flushed a medium-sized bird on the seaward side of the caravans, that it was heading away from me in a lollopy, bouncy kind of way, and would disappear around the end caravan unclinched if I didn't hurry up and look at it properly. Even straight into the sun it was unmistakeable. That fleeting, rubbish view through the bins was plenty. I'd known it was going to be a Hoopoe anyway, but if I hadn't briefly seen those broad, pied wings through my 10x lenses I would have been a bit stuffed if I'm honest.

I searched for it, but to no avail, and guessed it had probably headed off inland. I've previously known Hoopoes evaporate in exactly that fashion. They appear to have just flopped over the hedge but you never see them again. In reality they probably kept going for about fifty miles, all the while giving the impression they were contemplating imminent touch-down. After a bit of time spent trying to refind the Hoopoe I now had to abbreviate my intended route somewhat. Still, I could certainly afford a quick look along the start of the coast path from Cogden. There's a nice fence line there, and a grassy track...and blow me if that isn't a Hoopoe at the far end of it! I was the best part of a mile from the caravan park now, but surely it must be the same bird? Shortly after this, Mike and Alan, the patch regulars, caught up with it as it flew past us back towards the Cogden car park area. We headed that way too but couldn't immediately relocate it. My time was up and I left them to it. Strolling back past the caravan site I flushed a medium-sized bird on the seaward side of the caravans...lollopy, bouncy, etc...

This time it didn't go far. Carefully poking my phone camera around the corner of a caravan enabled me to capture a nice portrait...

No yellow circle needed here. The five pixels of bird are massively obvious up there in the third strip of sunlight

This is the first Hoopoe I've actually found. Although I don't keep a 'self-found' list (for all sorts of reasons that would require a post of their own to explain) I guess it is a bit overdue. There have certainly been enough spring trips to Scilly, and for 14 years now I've lived in a part of the country which gets them quite regularly. However, in view of the amount of birding I have been doing lately it was most certainly not deserved just at the moment!