Friday 16 June 2017

A Small World

Everyone has a few 'it's a small world' stories. Here's one of mine...

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, at the start of the month I visited some old haunts near London. My secondary school lies at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill and a caretaker chap allowed me to nose around the grounds and take some photos. In my day the first and second year classrooms (years 7 and 8 in modern parlance) were located in what used to be a grand old house...

'The Red House'. My first-year classroom lived behind that ground floor bay window from 1970-71

One wall of the building is peppered with these unsightly craters and crevices.

It seems this damage is so severe that one or two bricks have needed replacing and a few courses repointing. I wonder if modern-day observers have any idea how it was caused? Well, just around the corner on the left there used to be a stable-door type affair that would open at break times. Behind it lay what we quaintly called the tuck shop, which stocked the truly enormous Mars Bars and Wagon Wheels that existed in those days. There was always a queue, and it formed along the wall. Boys stood there impatiently, and while waiting would furtively gouge and scrape the soft red bricks with their coins. That's decades of cumulative coin abuse you're looking at there in that photo.

The Red House main entrance. The main school buildings lie on the opposite side of the street - behind me as I took the photo. The metal safety barrier wasn't there in the '70s...

One freezing morning in my final year there was a horrifying noise outside, a loud and crumpled bang. It was obviously a car crash, and as our classroom was right next to the road we were all out in the street within seconds. It was clear what had happened. A Volkswagon Beetle had come up the slope from South Harrow, hit a patch of ice and careered across the road and into one of the brick pillars of the Red House gateway. Initially we couldn't see the driver, but found him wedged in the footwell. With the impact he'd broken off the gear stick with his chest. He'd seen it all coming, so had immediately ducked down to avoid going through the windscreen - this was long before mandatory seatbelt wearing of course. Anyway, two of us helped him out of the wreckage. He was a bit cut and bruised but otherwise okay, so we took him to the school medical room. The Beetle was a write-off.

Scroll forward twenty-odd years and I'm sitting in a pub near Chorleywood with two mates I've known for a decade or so. Conversation gets around to schoolday stories. After a bit one of my friends pipes up...

"Gav, I didn't know that's where you went to school. When I was at Harrow Tech I used to drive up from Surrey every day and take a short-cut over Harrow-on-the-Hill, right past your old school. In fact, one day I smashed up my car right outside it! Straight into the wall! Write-off!"

"It wasn't a Beetle was it...?"

It was.

Sunday 11 June 2017


After a wet and windy October night on Fair Isle many years ago, I came across an exhausted Storm Petrel in the soggy grass. I gently picked it up, nestled it in my beanie hat and carried it back to the obs. It was so, so tiny...

And tiny is exactly what they look whenever I've encountered them while seawatching. Ludicrously so, especially if you've been watching larger birds go past - Fulmars, Manxies and whatnot. And yet that diminutive scrap of flesh and feather always looks perfectly at home on a heaving sea. They generally appear as a miniscule dark speck skittering quickly through your field of view. And just as you realise what you've got, it jinks, turns and is gone. They are not a common sight off the E Devon/W Dorset coast. My Seaton tally of 153 might suggest otherwise, but 125 of those were in an exceptional 9-day spell during late May 2006. They always head West off here. They might dither about, go back and forth a bit, feeding, but ultimately off they go, relentlessly westwards. I have 153 data points that say so. Or I did...

As I mentioned in the previous post, although there were evidently Stormies around, Monday's effort drew a blank. A pre-work stint on Tuesday did the trick though, and I managed four by 07:00. Or maybe just one. Though it could have been two...or three...

My notes say 1E at 05:30, 1W at 05:55, 1E at 06:17 and 1W at 06:59. How many is that? I can only guess. However, one thing I am confident about: they all/both (or it) will have headed W in the end.

Later that day I had another go. In two hours I had 1W at 16:07 and 1E at 16:09. In this case I am happy to record just the one bird. And I know it will have retraced its steps and gone W again eventually!

Whatever the actual count, Storm Petrel is another two very welcome patchwork challenge points.

Stormies are very, very rarely close inshore here. In my experience they are almost never closer than 200m. If you can detect a hint of white rump through your scope, well, relish the crippling view! Half a mile plus is probably the norm. When I say "miniscule dark speck" I mean it. Spotting these dots at all requires a steady scope, but finding decent shelter when the wind is blasting straight in is really tricky. Unless you take your own seawatching hide...

Monday 5 June 2017

Seawatching and a Random Grave

At Burton Bradstock is the Hive Beach car park, where I am learning the art of seawatching from a van. The wet hoolie that blew up today was an ideal opportunity to get some practice in. There are so many variables to master. Exactly where to position and point the van, the angle and extension of each tripod leg, which buttock to sacrifice to pins-and-needles...

Here's a tip for anyone with a Manfrotto fluid head: cut the pan arm in half.

I've owned a Manfrotto tripod for more than a decade now and it has served me very well; the super-smooth fluid head is terrific for seawatching when you need to keep track of a distant dot. And then - if you have a zoom lens like mine - you reach up to zero in on your target and claim the Sabine's Gull you are confident it is going to be, when...Aaagh! You accidentally knock the pan arm, jarring the whole scope off target and irretrievably losing your dot! Or you suddenly find the scope won't swing any further because the pan arm is now jammed against the bins on your chest. Both have happened to me countless times and cost me innumerable E Devon Sabs. Why? Because the pan arm is about a yard long, and gets in the way of absolutely everything. If, like me, you've spent well over ten years swearing that you'll cut that annoying arm in half when you get a minute, well, just do it. I did it a few weeks ago and the difference it makes is fantastic. The arm still functions perfectly and now doesn't get in the way at all. So far I haven't missed a single Sabs.

Anyway, I gave the sea a couple of efforts today. An hour this morning got me 21 Manxies and 7 Kitts, and a longer session this afternoon added 40 Manx, a single Kittiwake, 6 Common Scoters, and the highlight, a distant pale phase skua sp. E at 14:25. Mind you, realistically what could I have expected in a June seawatch here? A Storm Petrel perhaps? Yes, maybe. Secretly I was hoping for Long-tailed Skua. Everyone needs a fantasy.

And yes, the best bird had to remain unidentified. Which is June's way of sticking the boot in even when something decent does come along.

Me: "Ooh, hello, what's this?! Looks good...looks like a skua..."
[successfully reaches up to zoom in without knocking scope off-line]
Me: "Hah! Yes! That's right, pan-arm stump, your power is no more!"
Me: "Hmm, definitely pale phase, but...just...too...far..."
June: "Ha-ha-HAAA!"

At the weekend I was in London, and on Saturday toured some old haunts. It was a bit of a nostalgia trip really, and included a visit to my old school, which lies at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill. At the top of the hill is St Mary's Church, and I decided to search for a gravestone that I dimly recalled from my youth. To be honest I wasn't sure if my memory was playing tricks, but no it wasn't. I must confess, I'd forgotten that it included some of the most macabre lines of verse that a monumental mason has ever carved I reckon.


The story

The verse. Nice.

Friday 2 June 2017

So. June.

Well, that was interesting. My last post about birding reputations received approximately 7X more traffic than a bog standard one about the usual tosh. I think mainly because it was punted around Twitter somewhat. This surprising response taught me a couple of lessons.

1. I need to grow up and stop poking fun at the mighty Scopac. You won't see any such teasing in the current version of that post, but an early draft did contain what could easily be considered a rather sneery reference. I didn't mean to come across like that. I do appreciate that they must be a boon to many. And perhaps one day my ageing bones will demand I go and buy one. In the meantime I will stick with the shoulder while I can. When I can be bothered to carry a scope at all...

2. Despite one or two on Twitter espousing the "Who cares what anyone thinks of you?" sentiment, I get the feeling most do. I'm glad about that because I certainly do. Birding-wise, I would not like to think I had a reputation as dodgy in any way. Is it not fairly normal to care about that?

So, many thanks to those who commented, 'liked', retweeted etc. Much appreciated.

Well, here we are in June, easily my most hated birding month.

Having fairly limited play-time I like to get maximum value from it. In June I struggle to get any at all. One of my best ever June finds down here was a pair of Ruddy Shelduck on the Axe. Bla-a-a-ah...

On the other hand, my only two local Turtle Doves were both in June. But that is it. I cannot think of any other proper quality birds that have come my way while patch-birding in June.

In this part of the country June is when you might get the odd Woodchat Shrike, Rose-coloured Starling, maybe Bee-eater or (this year anyway) one of those myriad Red-footed Falcons. Perhaps. But not for me. Not in more than a decade of uncompromisingly half-hearted effort.

But it was hopes of one of the above (or similar) that got me up early this morning and out to the patch. Approximately 25 Common Scoter flew E over the sea, and 2 adult Med Gulls flew W over the land. I made a note of nothing else whatsoever.

Admittedly it was still May when I took this, but, Canada Geese. Does any other species convey the spirit of June so fully?