Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Rivers

Rob's car blew up last night. It's a right old banger anyway, and he's had more than his money's worth from it, but choosing to die on a single-carriageway section of the A35 at 10:30pm was a bit naughty. I trundled over in the van and towed him home. At least it was the right side of Dorchester and the traffic was light. So this morning I gave Rob a lift in to work. He's cooking the Christmas lunch menu at The Thimble Inn, Piddlehinton. On the way back through Dorchester I pulled over in order to take a look at the river. It's the River Frome, and regular readers may remember that it provided Rob with his first-ever grayling back in February, though further downstream at Wool...


Rob with our only fish of the day. The 'Beast from the East' was biting hard, which meant the grayling weren't.

The Frome is narrow where it flows through Dorchester, and while it was certainly tanking through at some pace, there was very little colour in it, which I guess is the norm for a chalk stream. I wandered in the drizzle along a riverside footpath until I came across an ancient sluice, took a photo, and then retraced my steps...


I would imagine that a photo taken in the same spot, when those sluice gates were all shiny and new, would likely have featured no houses at all in the background.

The river splits at this point, and as you can tell from the ironwork, there were once a set of sluice gates across the other branch of the stream too. As I stood there in the murk, carefully avoiding a seriously-pancaked dog turd, I surveyed the weathered steel, the remnants of old masonry, and wondered what had once been their purpose. A bit of googling tells me that they were used to divert water from the main river out onto the adjacent water meadows. Regular flooding of the meadows in winter apparently allowed more grass to be grown to feed the local dairy cattle. And if your imagination is vivid enough, you might be able to see a heavily-moustachioed chap in Edwardian flat cap, shirt-sleeves and waistcoat, clay pipe smouldering gently, using a heavy crank to winch open the sluices...

And that's one of the endearing things about rivers. Very frequently you encounter signs of by-gone times, interesting artefacts that give you a glimpse into the past. That's just one of many reasons why I love rivers. Whenever I am beside one, whether standing, sitting or strolling along, I cannot help but be struck by their timelessness.

Hopefully this is something I'll come back to in future posts...

Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Ruddy Duck Question


If you began birding only recently, here's a species you possibly don't yet have on your list...

Ruddy Ducks, otherwise known as 'dead birds floating'

I took the photo at Staines Res in December 2010, and haven't seen a Ruddy Duck since. In my active West London birding days of the 1980s and early '90s they were a pretty common sight, especially in winter when they gathered in double-figure flocks at several localities. According to what I've read (and I'll take it at face value) the whole UK population originated from seven individuals imported in 1948. They and/or their offspring began jumping the fence shortly afterwards, and when I saw my first (during a YOC trip to Tring Reservoirs in the early 1970s) they had been at large for maybe 25 years. By the year 2000 the population was around 6,000 birds...

If, at this stage, you are thinking "Oh, good for them! What a fine success story!" well, think again.

Perhaps you have in mind the ubiquitous Canada Goose, similarly 'at large', and highly successful. And while you personally (and sensibly) believe that the Canada Goose is evil incarnate, and clearly set to replace homo sapiens as the dominant species on the planet, you cannot help but marvel at its fecundity and its ability to persuade man to tolerate swarming herds of the things. Ruddy Ducks, on the other hand, are small and cute, and make you smile involuntarily at their ludicrously blue bills and ridiculous tails. If anything deserves a shot at success, the Ruddy Duck does. So, "Yes," you are thinking, "Go, Ruddy Ducks!"

But, O foolish naïf, you have reckoned without White-headed Duck, and the fact that Ruddy Duck has a very acquisitive eye on the position of its Eurasian congener. Arriving on the continent, it explained - like the Borg - that resistance is futile, and proceeded to begin assimilation by diluting the genetic purity of its cousin through hybridisation. Spain had just spent vast sums of money on improving the lot of its dwindling stock of White-headed Ducks by controlling shooting and protecting habitat, and there was no way the Ruddy Duck was going to be allowed to poop that particular party. Cutting a long story short, the upshot of all this was a decision to exterminate the entire UK Ruddy Duck population, beginning around the turn of the century. Since then, several million pounds of UK and EU money have gone into this eradication programme, and thousands have been shot.

Which means that nowadays it's a right stinker to get on your year list.

Opinions are divided on what to do about the last few remaining. An all-out effort to track down and shoot each and every one? Some see that as the righteous path, and would like any sightings of this now-scarce bird reported to the 'authorities'. Others, though, would rather protect them through suppression. Occasionally the debate surfaces online. Like this recent tweet...




I think it would be nice if the last few remaining Ruddy Ducks were left alone. My own reasons for that view are admittedly sentimental, but I can offer some argumentation for the scientifically inclined...

If you are convinced that evolution is the mechanism which drives the various changes in all forms of life on this planet, surely you've got to admire a bird that has evolved to look so cute that it can induce another species to pick it up and carry it halfway across the globe to facilitate the spreading of its genes. And if White-headed Duck is so genetically feeble that just a whiff of robust Yank DNA causes it to crumple so pathetically, well, it's doomed anyway isn't it? And who are we to get in the way of all that? So yes, of course Ruddy Duck fully deserves its crack at being the fittest for survival.

On a slightly more serious note, it is quite thought-provoking that we have the power to decide what species or habitats deserve our help, or not. We'll spend huge sums and loads of time and energy on some creature that is actually not threatened at all, while others (including many that we're probably quite oblivious to) are blithely allowed to disappear without trace. And still others are quietly taking over the planet without hindrance from mankind. It's all very arbitrary...


Resistance is futile...

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Working With What You Have

There's a Lidl store just down the road from here. I can walk there easily, and often do. In town there's a Waitrose, but very rarely do I shop there. Yes, when it comes to the contents of my wallet, the basic principle of 'working with what you have' guides me unerringly to Lidl every time.

Working with what you have...

It's an interesting principle. But not necessarily a popular one. For example, at this time of year just about every commercial enterprise that you might care to name is hell-bent on persuading you otherwise. Even Lidl is stacked to the rafters with the rich and sticky wares of seasonal excess. Go on, it's only once a year. Load up, splash out. You. Deserve. It...

In the face of all those tempting goodies, and as you watch cheery, dimple-cheeked families wheeling their mountainous trollies through the check-out, it would be so easy to get down-hearted. Envious perhaps. Decidedly unhappy with your sorry lot...

Which is why Mr Visa invented the credit card.

Actually, you can take that principle and apply it to all sorts of things. Like your best-loved hobbies, say...

Birding
It's autumn. Every bush on the east coast is dripping with drifted quality. Your inland patch, on the other hand, has been dead for weeks. Dead. Dead-dead-dead. And then one morning as you walk round the pit...what's that out on the water, spinning like a little top? Bins up. It's a phalarope! A gorgeous juvvy Red-necked Phalarope! You can hardly believe it, and your hands are shaking a bit as you reach for your phone. There'll be a twitch...

If you've ever experienced something similar, you will know exactly what I mean. Such moments are priceless. It doesn't even take a rarity. Working with what you have helps you see birds in the context of your patch, wherever that may be. And it stops you wasting emotional energy on pointless envy every time you (unwisely) study the BirdGuides map.

Fishing
I no longer live in West London's Colne Valley, where every gravel pit is home to bulging pods of gargantuan carp. In fact, Bridport is at least an hour's drive from almost all the sort of fishing which appeals to me. So I have to work with what I have, ie. distant venues. And I can forget huge carp. As it turns out though, I can have huge pike instead, which is fine. Very fine. And there are plenty of other appealing fishy targets too. It's just that the distance involved means I cannot go as often as I would like. So it's just as well that I have other hobbies. Like...

Cycling
To be honest, when it comes to cycling I am spoiled. The only way I could be unhappy with my lot is if my heart's desire was mile after mile of pan-flat, super-smooth tarmac on which to bash out very rapid miles. Yes, it would look great if I was clocking up a 20+mph average for every ride, but thankfully I am not interested in that. And I love the hills. Love 'em...

August. Inland of Abbotsbury, looking towards Portland. What's not to like?

Which leaves...

Running
With running I have recently been forced to accept an undeniable truth. Not counting nine months of womb, my body is more than half way through its 60th year. At this point in its career, many unwelcome physiological inevitabilities are at work. Like the fact that my muscles are much more eager to shrivel than grow. That recovering from a hard work-out takes two or three times as long as it did 30 years ago. That my maximum heart rate is endeavouring to be lower each year. And worst of all, that connective tissue takes so much longer to beef up than all the other stuff you need for injury-free running. The reality is that although I am technically capable of running farther and faster than I currently am, I simply dare not, because every time I open the throttle I get injured. Right now, for example, I am nursing a touch of plantar fasciitis. Basically this is a sore foot - pain on the underside of the heel/arch - a connective-tissue injury that requires careful management to facilitate recovery.

Cycling is different. It's perfectly possible to hammer yourself into the ground on the steepest of hills all afternoon, mentally begging for mercy at every summit, and then do it all again a couple of days later with nothing worse than sore muscles and a bit of cramp maybe. Brilliant. But try any of that masochistic stuff with running and you'll be out for weeks, as your tendons, ligaments, bursae, and other assorted gristly bits cripple you totally.

It's a shame really, because now that I've discovered I can still run, I want to see what this knackered old frame can do. Which means pushing it, testing it, stretching it. But it won't allow me to. Not yet. I need to be patient.

I'm trying hard not to get down about it. I need to remember to work with what I have...

Sigh...

I think a glass of wine might be in order. I can work with one of those...

Friday, 23 November 2018

Hide Life...

I do like Twitter. Admittedly, on occasion it's annoying, but for me the benefits currently outweigh the negatives. Take earlier this week for example...

It's Monday lunchtime, and I park the van at Coronation Corner on the Axe Estuary so I can check the gulls while eating. Nothing obvious on the deck, but scanning around I pick up a high and fairly distant flock of something-or-others heading north up the valley. Until I raised my bins I thought they were going to be Cormorants, but they weren't. Now bearing NE, and labouring a bit in the headwind, I could see big white wing-covert patches. Could they be Egyptian Geese? The flock numbered eight. I couldn't get much else on them really, and they were clearly heading purposefully away from the valley so I mentally shrugged and let them go.

Early the next morning they popped into my head again, so I punted out a hopeful tweet...

Oops, I got the date wrong. I meant 19th...

Well, nothing from E Devon, but I did get two replies (from Joe Stockwell and Portland Bird Obs) reporting that a flock of 8 Egyptian Geese had gone NE over Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay late the previous afternoon. The respondants had no way to know that I'd mucked up the date, so this information fitted even better than they would have realised. So. I'm having them. A flock of 8 Egyptian Geese over the Axe at approximately 13:00 on 19th November, 2018. Mega! Well, maybe not quite that, but the first I've seen locally since 2012, and by far the most.

Anyway, also on Twitter just lately has been a bit of post-writing inspiration: THIS thread, presumably in response to THIS blog post.

Ostensibly it's all about hides, but I think really it's all about people.

My birding friends will know my view of hides. I loathe them, yet recognise the necessary evil of their existence...


Like many birders, I have seen the inside of countless hides. The photo above illustrates a typical example, the Island Hide at Black Hole Marsh. In the right season it affords terrific views of nice waders etc, and I've seen some great birds from it. But look at it. It's a shed with slots, and I really do not want to bird from a shed. That is far and away my number one reason for disliking the things. Yes, give me the proper outdoors any day, with an unfettered view of the sky and horizon.

My number two reason has absolutely nothing to do with hides themselves...

The first hide I can definitely recall entering was at Elmley Marshes in 1981 or '82. I ticked Rough-legged Buzzard from it. I noticed that a couple of guys had set up camp inside with their flasks and sarnies, and were clearly set for the long haul. They were friendly and chatty, and told us about a White-tailed Eagle in Suffolk, which subsequently became our first big twitch. And dip. Those birders were my first taste of hide life, and their helpful attitude left a good impression. So that was nice, wasn't it?

However, since that occasion something very profound has happened: I have aged by more than 35 years...

In that time I have met a very wide spectrum of birders in hides. Non-birders too, of course. And, like when you meet a wide spectrum of people in almost any context, some have been delightful and some truly vile. As the years pass I find I am less and less inclined to put myself in a position where I might have to deal with horrible people. I am not alone in this; it's a trait I recognise in many of my contemporaries. In fact some will steer clear of situations where they might have to deal with any people! While I'm not quite that bad, I do sympathise. Entering a hide is a bit of a lottery, isn't it? You are stuck with whoever comes in. And if (like most of us I guess) you have buttons, someone there may well press them. Or, you may press theirs...

Which brings me back to the inspiration for this post.

I've never met Jono Lethbridge, nor Jo King. Jono I know only from his blog, which I have read since day one. Wanstead Birder is one of my stand-out favourites, and through the writing you get a sense of the personality behind it. I suspect I would like Jono. I don't know Jo at all, and don't follow her Twitter feed, so have little idea what she's like as a person. However, what I find really fascinating is how a medium like Twitter can link Jono and Jo and me, and umpteen other disparate characters who might never meet in real life, and allow a conversation to happen. And when that conversation is on a shared interest, well, all good.

You think?

If you want lessons in how to be glibly (and rudely) judgemental, study Twitter. Perusing a thread like the one linked above is all rather sad, and I see little evidence of any of the qualities that make being in a group of people bearable: empathy, tolerance, humility, unselfishness, etc. In fact, such an exchange just reaffirms my resolve to mainly avoid birding crowds, and of course, especially those in boxes.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The Freshwater Shark

Last Sunday night the forecast was lousy. Heavy showers, windy, the lot. Work-wise, Monday looked a write-off too, so I did something I've been meaning to try for a while. I went night-fishing for pike...

To be honest, years ago I was never all that enamoured of pike. Although I fished for them on occasion, I rarely did very well. My most successful endeavours involved a bag of sprats and a stretch of the River Colne, where I'd usually catch a few small ones. But anything bigger than five or six pounds was a bonus, and my best from the venue weighed 11-something.

More recently though - and thanks mainly to the enthusiasm of my son Rob - pike have got under my skin a bit. It's helped that I've caught a few, including a couple of real whoppers. I've said it before, but there is something truly awesome about a big pike. I think it's a combination of factors. First of all, they are properly wild fish and therefore rare; not stocked or artificially fed, but a genuine product of their environment. Secondly, despite being at the top of the food chain they are really quite fragile creatures, surprisingly vulnerable to careless handling, and that fact instills a measure of responsibilty and therefore respect. And finally, they are just so HUGE! A twenty-plus pike is jaw-droppingly enormous. Once you've had one on the bank, you can't wait for another...

So anyway, I'll cut a long story short. I fished for two nights but caught just one pike, which picked up a juicy old smelt at 06:50 on Monday morning. Here it is:

First Exeter Canal pike of the season: 11lb 8oz

I'm not quite sure what's going on with my facial expression there, because that semi-puckered look would not have been what I was going for exactly. All I can say is that this was a self-take, and I had no idea when the camera was actually firing. In fact, this is my first fishy self-take in many, many years, so I should just be grateful it worked. Coincidentally, my very first angling self-take involved a pike. No remote control (I still don't have one of those) so it was a whole series of shots featuring me and a modest pike, wrestling. This is about the best...

Springwell Lake, 1979

The pike weighed 9-something, and I'd waited all day for just the one run to my legered sprat. So I was going to photograph that fish. Absolutely. In the end I didn't get a single decent shot, yet still spent ages in a darkroom, developing the film and making the prints. Goodness knows why, because they're all rubbish! I'm glad I did though, because that nearly-40-year-old photo is like a little glimpse into angling history. And into mine too I suppose...

Monday, 5 November 2018

The Ricky Cons Years

I'm not quite sure what has inspired this post. I suppose I have a barely-suppressed desire to be a bit naughty really, because what I'm going to write about is actually against the rules.

Rules?

Yes. Rules.

Twenty-odd years ago I joined a fishing club based in West London's Colne Valley, and under the heading 'Publicity' the club's rules state the following:

No member shall take or authorise to be taken any photograph of the RCAS waters and/or activities for publication or to write or cause to be written any report or article on any RCAS activity for publication without the prior consent of the committee. This rule covers all media including the Internet. Failure to observe this rule could result in a life time ban.

So yes, the rest of this post is pretty naughty. Especially the photos.

RCAS stands for Rickmansworth Conservative Angling Society. Keen carp anglers will know this club by its more familiar diminutive, 'the Cons'. To a newly-fledged carper in 2018, membership of the Cons is a non-starter. The waiting list was closed several years ago, and those currently near the bottom of it had better hope for good health and a very long life. In the mid-'90s it wasn't quite so bad. One of my old buddies was a member. He proposed me (which got me on the waiting list) and after a couple of years my name duly came up for consideration. And when I say 'consideration' I mean it, because membership was not a formality; you had to pass muster. You enjoyed the dubious privilege of an interview with three of the committee, whose shrewd quizzing was supposed to reveal whether you would be a suitable addition to the hallowed RCAS roll, or were simply an undesirable big carp glory-hunter. Meanwhile, your proposer sat meekly in the background, praying that you didn't say anything stupid...

So, Gavin, why do you want to join the Cons?
Well, I heard your lakes are stuffed with monster carp, and I fancy some of that...
Oh? Whatever gave you that idea?
Roy told me. Didn't you, Roy... [turns in dense, bovine fashion towards pale, sweating proposer]

A Cons ticket was hard-won gold dust back then, and even more so now.

Until recently you could visit the club's website and view the actual waiting list. Everything was there, the names, what year they were added, which particular sub-list they were on (ie., the family list, the <10 miles radius list, the >10 miles list, etc) but of course the latest data-protection laws have put paid to that. Scattered among the names was a mini Who's Who of prominent carp anglers. The Cons was, and is, an exclusive fishery with a stock of stunning, huge, highly desirable carp. But, because of the publicity ban, you'll struggle to find a published photo of a single one.

To non-anglers I'm sure this is all rather silly, and I must confess that I cannot think of any parallel within the birding, cycling or running world. Believe me though, to some carp anglers this is deadly serious stuff...

Anyway, I was hardly even a carp angler, let alone a deadly serious one. I simply (and handily) had a mate who was already a member, and I thought it would be nice to have access to a fishery with some clonking great carp in it. At the time I'd never even used a boilie or a hair-rig, which is angling code for 'I was a total carping noddie'.

However, by my final season (which was probably 2001-2) I'd managed to winkle out a few nice carp up to 35lb, and one night was on hand to witness a 51-pounder on the bank, a colossal beast which took my breath away. But rather than talk about me, I thought it might be more interesting to view the Cons years through my son's experience, because in Rob's book it was a formative chapter rather than just an amusing paragraph.

Rob was only 14 or 15 when I joined the Cons, and as family he automatically gained junior membership. He was thrilled, and so excited to be going night-fishing. However, initially he wasn't interested in carp at all. For Rob, it was all about eels. Dead keen, he would be down the lakes in all weathers, living up to the nickname he rapidly earned: 'Mad Eel Boy'...


An early eel, and a right wriggly handful by the look of it
 
Rob's biggest Cons eel, at 4lb 5oz. We knew of 6lb+ fish caught accidentally by carp anglers, which is very big for an eel.



Eventually though, the carp bug bit, and one day in September 1999 I got the call to photograph Rob's first Cons carp...


20lb 12oz, and the start of a mild obsession

Rob was 16. When I was that age, a fish of these proportions was a mythical creature encountered only within the pages of the Angling Times. A young angler cannot catch a fish of this size and not be fundamentally influenced by the experience. The desire for 'more' and 'bigger' bites hard.

Cons carp were far from easy to catch. A season's 'top rod' may land perhaps 15 or so. Winter captures were rare as the proverbial, and even in summer a week or two might pass without a fish caught by anyone. Rob rose to the challenge though, and in the summer of 2002, aged 19, landed his biggest Cons carp...


34lb 10oz of cracking mirror carp

Not long after this, things went a bit pear-shaped for Rob. Following some relatively minor misdemeanours involving one or two of his dodgy mates, he was invited to attend a disciplinary hearing. The verdict: guilty. The sentence: one year's ban. Shortly afterwards Rob moved down and joined us in East Devon and, when the ban expired, did not renew his Cons membership. I allowed mine to lapse also. In the unlikely event that any rabid carper reads this he will doubtless be gasping at this perceived folly. To many, it's akin to throwing away the golden ticket. And, funnily enough, both of us have a tiny tinge of wistful regret. Despite living almost three hours away, it would be kind of nice to be able to drop in and fish such a mega-exclusive venue when the fancy takes us. But do we miss it really? No. The lakes were busy enough back then, and with the fish even bigger now, I can't imagine there are fewer anglers chasing them. These days, both of us prefer the solitude offered by an unpressured venue rather than the cut-and-thrust of competing for the prime spots, and the associated bankside 'politics'.

Shortly after moving to the southwest, Rob borrowed my red hat and took it barbel fishing to the River Stour near Christchurch. It duly did the business, and Rob landed this humongous barbel, which, at 13lb 2oz, remains his biggest ever...


February 2003. A really nice red hat.

So, yes, a door had closed, but in angling, as in most hobbies I imagine, there are countless others. And frequently both Rob and I are pleasantly surprised at what lies behind them...

The rather delapidated shack pictured below was once the Cons club hut. Situated on the banks of the Cons 'Big Lake', it commanded an idyllic view across the fishery. It's long gone now. The photo was taken in about 2002 I reckon, by which time a new, bigger club hut had been built elsewhere, and it's hard to believe that one beautiful spring day in the mid-'90s I slightly nervously walked through the door of this glorified shed, sat down in front of the committee panel, and managed not to muck up my membership interview.

It's pleasing to realise that all the photos above are an indirect consequence of that occasion...



Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The Inexorable March of Time

As I am growing older, it seems that events conspire more and more frequently to remind me of this unfortunate fact. I'd like to share some recent examples...

Just yesterday Steve tweeted this pic:


In the text of his tweet Steve asked, "Gav, am I right in saying you've seen Leach's Petrel from here?" Steve was right; I have. Sunday morning, 6th November 2005. It was blowing a hoolie, tanking down with rain, and my usual favourite seawatching spot of the day, the thatched shelter partially visible in the photo above, was too exposed to the weather to be viable. I wondered if the concrete hut thing below might be better (I had no idea it was an ex-WWII searchlight emplacement) and headed down to give it a try. Although a bit buffetted by the wind, at least it kept the rain out. By the time I had to leave at 09:00 I'd seen two Leach's Petrels slowly work their way westwards. Phil joined me in time to see the second one, and I think had another after I left. At the time it was a mega patch-tick, and since then I've only seen one other, which was brought to the Seaton Marshes hide in a box in December 2006.

But, my goodness, was it really thirteen years ago?! Aagh!!

Just lately I had a bit of a garage clear-out, and ruthlessly pruned a load of old stuff that I really didn't need any more. Like this, for example:


This rusty old cantilever tool box was nice and shiny when I lovingly applied those stickers to it. I bought it at Wembley market, which was a weekly event at the old stadium in my youth. It would have been in 1978 or '79, which I am painfully aware is basically four decades ago...

Did I really once buy a copy of Hot Rod & Custom Magazine??

And then there was this...

I am doing some work in our loft right now, and beneath the bottom layer of ancient insulation I found a sheet of newspaper. It's the front and back page of an old Sunday Express. Just in case you can't make it out in the photo below, the date is 6th May, 1973...

Photo taken within moments of discovery

What is of special significance for me is the subject matter. I can vividly remember watching that FA cup final on the telly. I had no loyalties to either Leeds or Sunderland, but was rooting for Sunderland because they were such desperate underdogs in this contest. As a 2nd-division team it was a small miracle that they'd even made it to the final, and now they were facing Leeds United, the previous year's winners and one of the most dominant sides in football at the time.

Amazingly, Sunderland scored after 31 minutes and then hung on to that slender lead for the rest of the game to claim victory. As you can imagine, the tension mounted relentlessly with each passing minute, so as the final whistle blew there was this incredible release, and scenes of absolutely massive euphoria from the Sunderland supporters, team and staff. As a 14 year-old I was totally caught up in it, despite not really being a football fan, so the discovery of this little time capsule in my loft took me straight back there...

Forty-five years!!

Horrifying.

Our eldest son will be 36 in December. He is a chef, and has worked all over the place, including a year in Australia and three years in Indonesia. He's just taken a job in Switzerland. When it comes to travel he has ten times more experience than me. Our younger son is 33, and works as an electrician in London, supervising commercial installations. It's sometimes hard to think of my children as mature, responsible adults, in many ways far more knowledgable and accomplished than me. That's bad enough. But in conversation with them I sometimes detect, in the gentle father-and-son banter, a note of amused tolerance, and realise that they are wise to the flaws and frailties of their ageing parents, and patiently accept them...

Now, where's my bus pass?

Saturday, 22 September 2018

If Only I Was a Proper Birder...

If only I was a proper birder...

This recent rough weather would have got me all excited, that's for sure. A few storm-blown waifs guaranteed, I reckon. And sure enough, several Grey Phalaropes have turned up along the nearby coast. In times past I would have been out there looking for such gems, and hoping for even better, like a Sabine's Gull perhaps.

Or a Leach's Petrel. Like this one, found in Christchurch Harbour yesterday...



My sentiment would typically have echoed that of @amythebirder there, along with a little envy. If I was a Christchurch Harbour birder I would quite possibly have been popping down for a look, even in my current mode of deep phase. Yes, I might have rocked up, peered at it through some pricey glass, maybe taken a snap or two, willed it to fly around a bit, and so on... All pretty standard birding behaviour which, over the years, I have exhibited many times. On a handful of occasions with this very species in fact.

However, not all the Twitter comments had a tone of such innocent delight...




Now it's true to say that sometimes I have had 'poor thing' type thoughts because of the sorry state of a particular bird (or even a lot of birds during hard-weather movements) and certainly it detracts from one's pleasure when you can see that a bird is clearly on its last legs. But the comment above caught my attention. Evidently it reflects a measure of concern about the bird's condition, and I can appreciate why. Fine. However, the suggestion that observers need to mute their pleasure somewhat because of the bird's seemingly unhappy circumstances surprised me. Putting aside my initial reaction that it was a bit preachy, I gave it some thought. And it has me wondering whether I am somehow out of step with current birding sensibilities...

Let's be frank. If I was out birding in foul weather, an encounter like the above would be exactly what I was hoping for. If I chanced upon a storm-driven Leach's I would be extremely chuffed. And I can say without reservation, worries that I might be experiencing 'too much joy' would be far from my mind; in fact it would be difficult to think of a more satisfactory outcome to a stormy afternoon's birding! Even if the bird was found by someone else, who then texted me, and I twitched it...again, no worries. If it was a patch-tick, I'd be celebrating. If it was a lifer, even more so!

So, is there something wrong with me? Do I lack compassion or something? Is my sensitivity chip corrupted?

Maybe all of those things. Because I have to confess, if I were ever to find a Nearctic cuckoo of some kind (and let's face it, every single one of them is basically a dead-bird-flying, or, more often, a dead-bird-hunched-miserably-on-the-deck) I would be absolutely ecstatic, and no amount of social media moralising would have me feeling any different. Is that not normal any more? Do I need to ask my conscience some hard questions...?

Sunday, 2 September 2018

A Small Wriggling Thing, and Other Stories

A couple of weeks back I revisited an old birding haunt...


I hadn't been up here for ages, certainly it was prior to the installation of this information board. Three days on the trot I popped by, but with little reward; just a few Wheatears, Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and so forth. All the same, it was enjoyable to retrace old footsteps, and to remember the successes (and occasional failures) of yore. I'm pleased to note that local birders are still covering Beer Head on a regular basis, with frequently half a dozen or so getting up there of an autumn morning. It's hard to believe that almost 14 years have passed since I first came across late-autumn Firecrest and Ring Ouzel on the headland and vowed to investigate the obvious potential next year. That 'next year' was 2005.

And it's that all-too-rapid passage of time that occupied my thoughts as I sat down with the laptop this afternoon. Where has the year gone? July and August have slipped by without a single NQS post, and to be honest I've covered all I can say about birding in the paragraph above. So, other stuff then...

The Turf Hotel, Exeter, Devon, EX6 8EE
Taken on Friday, 17th August, this photo features a few bicycles. The one on the right is mine. Perhaps you're thinking "Hmm, the Turf Hotel...that name rings a bell somehow..." Well, if you twitched the Devon American Robin, so it should, because this pub is just across the Exeter Ship Canal from where that bird hung out in November 2010. As I sat in the sunshine here, savouring a nice coffee and a melting, sticky cake-thing, I pondered this trivial fact: I have enjoyed high points of three separate hobbies within a stone's throw of this very spot.
  1. Said American Robin - the only one I've seen in this land, and a rare 21st-century twitch
  2. My biggest-ever pike of 24lb 14oz, in December 2016
  3. An idyllic coffee stop during one of the most enjoyable long bike rides I've undertaken
Because yes, it was a lo-o-o-ong bike ride. 90-odd miles in fact. Without a lot of careful route-planning I'd found myself at the Exmouth Marina, and remembered that there was a ferry you could catch from here to take you across the Exe Estuary to Starcross, Why not? I thought...

In the queue
En-route...
Number one novel discovery of this jaunt was learning that there is a floating restaurant in the middle of the river, accessible only by boat. Who knew?

Perhaps I should now find some way to incorporate Turf Lock into an epic run, and chalk up a four-hobby moment in the one spot.

While we're talking Exeter Canal, I should mention a recent event that definitely qualifies as one of my most unexpected - bizarre, even - angling happenings ever...

I joined Rob for an overnight session on the canal last week. Rob was after carp mainly, but I was kitted out with a lighter set-up, aiming for tench. I used an open-ended feeder with a short hook-link on a helicopter rig, and baited with a couple of dead red maggots and a plastic one [with apologies for the esoteric language there]. We were pretty confident of catching something, because we'd seen signs of feeding fish quite nearby, but the downside was that we were in just about the noisiest spot on the canal. Or in the whole of Devon possibly...

That's Rob's bivvy, with the M5 directly above (deafening!) plus occasional passing JCB and heavy engineering works off-stage left. Also, a million cyclists, walkers and dogs.
Compare this spot with the one we fished back in April (as illustrated in this post) and it's a wonder they could possibly be on the same venue. But they are. Mind you, there's over a mile between them, and they're on opposite banks.

Anyway, the fishing was great. Rob had just landed a nice tench when I arrived...

Not the carp he was hoping for, but 5lb 3oz of pristine tench is always going to put a smile on your face.

In just over 24 hours my tenchy tactics outwitted three tench to 5lb exactly, five bream to 7lb 4oz, and something else, entirely unexpected...

It was after midnight. I'd just landed a tench, unhooked it and recast, leaving the fish in the landing net to weigh in a moment. I was just taking out the slack and setting the bobbin and alarm when I felt the line tugged from my fingers. A fish had taken my bait within moments of it settling on the bottom! Whatever I'd hooked felt rather small as I wound it in easily. So small in fact, that I swung it straight to my hand. Whereupon I got a mighty big surprise...


It was a wels, or European catfish! In 1990 I spent a memorable summer fishing for this species at Tiddenfoot Pit in Leighton Buzzard, where I caught something like 16 of the things, up to 27lb 10oz, which was reputedly the biggest in the lake at the time. Back then the species was rare indeed, with just a handful of accessible venues providing a realistic possibility of catching one, and a 30-pounder being about the biggest you might expect. Fast-forward 28 years and the angling scene is very, very different. Catfish now reach an astonishing 90lb in Tiddenfoot, and according to the Leighton Buzzard Angling Club website "...anglers can expect multiple captures in a session." They are also far more widespread. As well as legal stockings in various stillwaters, there have been loads of illegal ones too, and catfish are potentially present just about anywhere. Rumours of their existence in the Exeter Canal are rife, and Rob and I know of a definite 40-pounder caught several years ago. However, we reckoned that in the highly unlikely event that either of us hooked a mythical Exeter Canal 'cat', the ensuing battle would involve an unstoppable force steaming off down the canal like a U-boat before snapping our line like cotton. Because certainly I have never experienced a fish that, pound-for-pound, can pull as hard as a catfish...

And yet here I was, holding a wriggly little tiddler catfish in my hand; an incy-wincy 'kitten'! Evidently the mummy and daddy catfish have got it on, and been fruitful. I bunged it in my huge carp retainer (that I have yet to retain a carp in!) so that I could get a quick phone-snap in the daylight.

And that, dear reader, brings to a close the latest NQS offering. Until next time...

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

O What a Beautiful Mo-o-o-orning...!

Well, what a glorious morning for a run! I really ought to get a post out while the mood is upon me, especially in the light of what I wrote a couple of days ago...

I was up at six, and at Burton Bradstock by about half-past. Apart from a solitary dog-walker the vista was human-free. Perfect. After a gentle trot round a clifftop field to warm up I headed off towards West Bay, via the Freshwater Beach Holiday Park and Bridport Golf Course. It was simply sublime, the morning air cool and crystal clear, the sea calm and as blue as you like. Apart from a lone golfer and a greenkeeper, fairway life was mostly avian: a few Pied Wags, Crows and other typical June stuff. Coming off the golf course, you drop down through a rough field into West Bay. The view was well worth pausing for...

West Bay is far from my favourite seaside resort, but just look at that coastline...

Then it was round to the sea, and up that vicious cliff path which featured distantly in a photo in the previous post. Arriving at the top I stopped to catch my breath, using the excuse that it was only polite to at least have a cursory look for the plant which Steve Gale mentioned in a recent comment: stinking goosefoot. I had actually checked out some photos online, so knew it was green. Well, there was a lot of green stuff on view. Loads. All of it supremely cryptic. I gave up and headed on, soon coming to the 'stairs'...

The steps on the far side of the dip are actually much steeper than these ones. Even so, a controlled descent is required here; those are proper cliffs, with a proper vertical drop.

After climbing that far slope you drop down the other side to the Freshwater Beach Holiday Park again. Arriving there I was reminded once more of something that they never tell you about running. Not before you first start anyway. No, they let beginners find out all about it when they are out for a run one day in the middle of an extremely public, built-up area, far, far from the nearest loo. Yes, that's right. One of the joys of running is the occasional digestive malfunction...

The prudent runner knows the precise location and opening times of each and every public loo on his/her patch. Well, let me tell you, The Freshwater Beach Holiday Park has a sumptuous shower and toilet block. Well-maintained and delightfully clean. For which I am very grateful.

There is a stiff climb up the cliffs again from Freshwater Beach, and then a smashing path along the top, back to the car. I finished off with another brief jog around the field where I started, a bit of a stretch, and then home.

As a birder - even a pretty shabby one - you can't help noticing birds, wherever you are. In Bridport town centre recently I glanced up and spotted a Peregrine circling, only the second I've seen away from the coast here. Likewise, this morning I couldn't help noticing birds everywhere. As it's still June I didn't bother looking too closely - except at Starlings - but I'm very conscious that autumn will soon be here, and anywhere along the Lyme Bay coast can potentially produce just about anything. I have very fond memories of Beer Head, near Seaton, and the many good birds I saw there, and running along this local stretch of coast reminded me of it very much. In fact, I remembered that we used to see runners at Beer Head quite regularly, and back then I did used to wonder how many decent birds they must have run past during the course of a year...

Which brought another memory flooding back. A runner at Beer Head. A female runner. Late August 2006. Yes, she ran right past a good bird that day. A really good bird. And flushed it...

Beer Head Ortolan
Disclaimer: may not be actual bird on actual date

Should I apologise for finding yet another reason to trot out this lovely little bit of grip?

Nah!

And anyway, it might just happen again. Right here on this beautiful stretch of coastline, while I'm out for a run. So, stay tuned for some sweaty-browed, bins-less stringing...

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Joy of Offroad

There is a satisfying, unpretentious pleasure to be had from running offroad. Tracks, footpaths, bridleways...all provide an unambiguous connection with the proper outdoors that roads and pavements cannot. The River Chess valley near Rickmansworth provided just such jollies for a much younger me - you could go miles and miles with barely a hint of tarmac - so it will come as no surprise to learn that I've been seeking similar routes locally. But I am beginning to draw a depressing conclusion: away from the coast the footpaths are mostly dreadful. Frequently overgrown, unsigned, so rock-strewn and rutted that you daren't raise your eyes from the ground and can't really run at all, or in some other way deeply unsatisfactory.

Here's a typical example...

This photo was taken on May 29th, following three weeks of bone-dry weather. Prior to that it was a lake.

However, when you get near the sea it's a very different matter. I've barely scratched the surface yet, but already feel quite spoiled by what is on offer locally. And there is so much scope for exploration along the coast here...

Clifftop view from Burton Bradstock, early morning. Just me and the odd dog-walker. Bliss.

Roughly 7:00am last Saturday morning, the East Cliffs at West Bay. Twice, so far, I have run up that slope. Well, not 'run' exactly... Anyway, it is as steep as it looks, and demands three lungs at least. On the top is a golf course, and a great view.

Regular readers will hopefully forgive the weeks of utter silence, and the blithe segue into running mode. Standard NQS protocol of course...

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Several Things

Several things then, starting with birds.

May 15th, and it's the second day of the now-annual Red Kite convention in the west country. En route to darkest Cornwall the delegates meander wherever the weather dictates, and at least seven of them pass over chez NQS. This is unprecedented, and if I'd been looking skywards more often (or even spent the whole day at home) I'm sure the count would have been twice that, or more. I managed a couple of dire photos, so here's one...


Now that I've managed to photograph (however poorly) a Red Kite or two from the garden, I doubt I'll bother again. I'm satisfied with a record shot. I do understand the desire for the Ultimate Capture but, not having the gear for such an image, there is no point me trying. However, I do struggle to understand what drives photographers to visit Colin the Cuckoo at Thursley Common. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but published pics of the situation there appear to depict a set-up which is basically staged, with 'nice' mossy perches carefully positioned so that Colin is 'pleasingly' lit and has a complimentary background. Ooh, I've just had a thought. Is he tempted in with bait too? Please tell me he's not. Anyway, whatever, the whole scenario stinks. Photos of the gallery of snappers in attendance I find quite depressing. Maybe there's something wrong with me and I am missing the point, but to me wildlife should basically be just that. Wild. Difficult. Challenging. Dare I say that photos taken in such circumstances are slightly fraudulent? That's my opinion of course, and I suppose I ought to acknowledge that other viewpoints are equally valid. Well, maybe not equally...

Please feel free to argue the toss; this blog is not an echo chamber.

So. Back in December or thereabouts, I entered a proper race, the Egdon Easy 10k. This somewhat reckless move was precipitated by my happy discovery last summer that I could still run. The race was not until May 26th, so there would be plenty of time to sharpen up speed and endurance before the fateful day. That was the plan, at least. Then I got a niggling groin injury and my progressive running routine went out the window. In the last couple of weeks I'd begun to get out regularly once again, but approached last night's race under no illusions. The course was billed as flat and fast - a couple of laps of RSPB Lodmoor in fact - and I set myself a target of under 53 minutes, which would equate to 8:30 min/mile or less. My secret desire was to go sub-8:00 min/mile (ie. under 50 minutes) but I thought that highly unlikely, and subdued such inappropriate lusting.

This was the scene about 20 minutes before the start. Runners gathering in little clubby clusters. I was feeling pre-race nerves at this point, a weird sensation that I hadn't experienced for a very long time indeed.
Trying to listen to the completely inaudible 'safety briefing'. I hoped I hadn't missed any good advice, like "mind the bollards right in the middle of the path" and suchlike. Notice I am well away from the front. Wisely...

And then we were off! Deliberately I tried not to get carried away in the excitement and set off too fast. It worked, and after a few minutes I could tell that the breathing was still easy, and settled into a steady rhythm. My Garmin kept telling me that I was trotting along at roughly 8-minute mile pace, and after three or four kilometres I realised that sub-8s might be on the cards after all. Very gradually it got harder and harder to maintain the pace, a feeling I remembered from those many races of years ago. A nice feeling though. Satisfying in fact, knowing that pace-wise I had got it spot-on, and in the final few hundred metres was even able to wind it up a bit for a final sprint to the line. Okay, 'sprint' might be a bit strong, but definitely 'very quick shuffle'...

Totally oblivious of Mrs NQS capturing this historic moment, I hammer past in a speedy blur...

Strava has all the numbers. Look at that epic pacing!

So, 10k in 49:41 or 7:57 min/mile. I can honestly say I was delighted with that. Much better than expected. I felt fine afterwards too, and today there are no aches or pains. Onwards and upwards then...

I came 77th out of 302 finishers, and 10th out of 37 in my age class (m50). Next year I will be a brand new m60, but to win that category I will need to beat some bloke who did 43:20 yesterday! Bit of a tall order I think. Actually it's very sobering to consider how age affects athletic performance. At the peak of my powers, aged 33, I would potentially have finished in, or very close to, the top 10 of this race. So I'm very pleased that my friend Ric told me about something called 'age-graded performance' where your times are seen in the context of your age group. Old people are slower, and that's that. "Live with it" said Mrs NQS, sympathetically...

Friday, 11 May 2018

Skua Fix

When it comes to skuas I am quite easily pleased. It could never be said that Lyme Bay is crawling with them, so the odd one or two here and there generally does the trick for me. Despite an almost 100% birding hiatus so far in 2018 I have been keeping an eye on the weather with a view to getting a seawatch in at some stage this spring. I had an abortive go back in April, but the rain and lack of visibility saw me scuttling home after about twenty minutes. This morning, however, looked very promising I thought...

We've had very little wind with much east in it so far, but the forecast predicted a swing from SW to SSE overnight, and a breezy SSE (more or less) for most of the day. My fairly limited seawatching experience at Burton Bradstock tells me that anything with west in it is a bit of a trial at best, while a raging SW (a potentially excellent wind at Seaton) is basically a straight-onshore nightmare. Anything from S through to E, however... yes, please. The orientation of the coast here seems to encourage almost everything to fly from right to left in such conditions as well, which is extremely helpful.

So, alarm set for 05:15; in position at 05:40...

Almost immediately it felt promising. Auks and Manxies were already passing in little groups, and a few Gannets very close in. The trickle built to a gentle flow, and I can honestly say that the next four and a half hours flew by. No boredom whatsoever. And there were skuas. The first was an immaculate dark-phase Arctic at 06:15, just 2-300 yards out and superbly lit by the low morning sun. Its chocolate-brown loveliness even made me exclaim out loud: "Oh yes, you beauty!" Bit sad, but there you go. Hopefully I will always feel that way upon reacquaintance with nice close skuas after a little break.

Next up was an equally close Bonxie at 08:00, plus another, more distant, some 15 minutes later. Lyme Bay clearly was not packed with skuas, and a couple of tweets from observers further west suggested likewise, with just a few Arctics and Bonxies reported. This helped me feel that at least I was getting my share, but didn't quite prepare me for 08:43...

Panning right I glimpsed a dark shape low among the waves. In the nanosecond before it dipped out of sight I knew it was a Pom, and sure enough, as it heaved upwards, there was a stonking light-phase Pomarine Skua in all its spooned-up glory. Superb! It was a little further out than any of the previous three skuas, and appeared to forge a path straight into the wind and gradually away from the shore. Too soon it was gone.

I packed it in at 10:10. There were no more skuas, but it's not often that I've had three species in one seawatch along the coast here. And there was plenty of variety in the chorus line. Although I didn't bother with much counting, here is a list of the rest of this morning's action...

Great Northern Diver, 4
Manx, 500+ (I actually counted to 200 before remembering how lazy I am, and stopped immediately).
Gannet, lots (200+?), many really close
auk sp, hundreds, many more than Manx.
Kittiwake, 10+
Sandwich Tern, 25+
'commic' Tern, 5
Common Tern, 2
Roseate Tern, 1
Common Scoter, 21
Sanderling, 4
Whimbrel, 5
Bar-tailed Godwit, 11
Grey Plover, 3
Gadwall, 1 female, a seawatch surprise!

Did you notice the Roseate Tern hidden away in that lot? Bit of a Lyme Bay biggie there, and only about my fifth or sixth local bird I think. I picked up a little group of Sandwich Terns coming slowly towards me from the west and quickly noticed that one of them was a bit small and had a ridiculously long tail. It was clearly as white as a Sarnie though... Er... My poor little cogs were struggling a bit, but finally the penny dropped and I eagerly awaited the close fly-past that was imminent. It didn't happen. Instead they all gradually drifted back W again and that was the last I saw of it.

There was also brief excitement when I tried hard to turn a distant single auk into a Puffin, another local rarity. It all looked okay except that I couldn't get any colour at all on the bill, and I thought I should have done at the range involved. So, safer to let it go.

Anyway, I enjoyed it so much that I might even return later. I've done this kind of thing before though, and I know exactly what 'anticlimax' means...

In other hobbies, well, I hooked and lost a single tench on Tuesday, while Rob caught one. I was rather disappointed. The area we've put a bit of effort into doesn't appear to be rewarding us to the expected degree, though Rob is happy enough with a fish or two each time. Me though, I'm greedy, and want more. Still, I certainly can't complain at the lovely surroundings...

The Exeter Canal, late evening on Bank Holiday Monday. Lovely.

Our set-ups are a bit different, and while I am mostly using a combination of fake and real maggots for bait, Rob is only using fake stuff, bits of foam and plastic designed to mimic sweetcorn and red maggots. The upside of his approach is that Rob is not pestered by small fish, which home in on my real maggots like moths to a flame. On the other hand, at least I get a few bites to keep things lively, while Rob gets very, very few! A couple of my maggot-raiders were bootlace eels, which are never welcome, but the rest have been gorgeous little rudd, and I've yet to tire of them...

5lb 12oz of immaculate canal tench

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Tench Through the Ages

I wonder how many anglers read this blog? Few, I suspect. Very few. So fishing posts like this one are a bit self-indulgent really, a kind of online diary that I can browse at some future date, smiling at the ups and downs of this or that venture...

Tench then. Well, the campaign continues. I was too busy with work to get involved last week, but Rob managed to get off the starting blocks with two modest fish of around 4lb apiece. This was well away from where most anglers head for tench, which makes it feel like we're ploughing our own furrow; always a satisfying thing. This week I joined him though, in the same area, and yesterday evening managed a couple myself.

A pristine male fish of 4lb exactly. Just behind my right shoulder you can see the Exe Estuary. Right of shot is the canal. It is hard to imagine a more delightful spot to go fishing. Despite the beautiful evening sunshine it was very cold!
Another male, slightly bigger at 4lb 10oz. It is said that the potential size of the biggest female tench in a water is double that of the biggest male. If that is true, our hope that we might better our tench personal bests of 8lb-odd is a realistic one.

Rob managed a couple of bream yesterday, but no tench. However, this afternoon he WhatsApp'd me a few phone camera self-takes. Here's one...

The bigger of two fish Rob caught this afternoon. At 6lb 2oz this is his best of the campaign thus far.

We're up to nine tench between us now, with two six-pounders. And they've all been super-looking fish. Still early days really though, and we both feel like we've only scratched the surface in terms of getting to know the venue and how to extract its inhabitants.

Yesterday afternoon it was really windy, and many small rafts of floating (and semi-floating) weed were drifting down the canal, constantly wiping out our carefully-positioned rods. In the end we resorted to back-leads [I must include an angling glossary one day...] but before we did that I decided to take a long walk to note interesting spots for future carpy intentions. I can honestly say I covered every inch of the canal from the Double Locks to Turf and back. At least a six-mile walk, it took me four very pleasant hours. En route I photographed an Orange Tip and Comma with my phone, and must have walked (unknowingly) within fairly close proximity of a Black-winged Stilt that was frequenting Exminster Marshes for the day. Ironically I was wearing bins, but the best birds I managed were my first Swifts of the year. The only other fisherman was on the far bank at the Lime Kilns, but was gone by the time I got round there myself. Hammered, the place is not! I didn't see any birders either, but I expect they were all over on the marshes!

Comma, and (above) Orange Tip. Not bad for a phone camera. I can remember one of my work colleagues getting a mobile with a camera in it about 15 years ago. How we laughed at the stupid, primitive thing. That'll never catch on, we thought...

Finally then, the reason for the title of this post. Shuffling through my old photos the other day I realised that tench are a constant feature in angling-related pics. So here is a collage of more than 45 years-worth...


Clockwise, from top left:
  • Probably 1971 or '72. Barn Hill Pond, Wembley. I'm not sure, but this might be my first tench ever.
  • 1974-ish. Hemingford Grey pits, which used to be under LAA control (London Anglers Assoc)
  • 1978. Langham Pond, Runneymede. Now a SSSI with no fishing. Back then, the perfect place for a so-called student to idle away some pleasant hours.
  • 1979 or '80. Springwell Lake, Rickmansworth. Another ex-LAA water.
  • 1988-ish. Bury Lake, Rickmansworth. Returning a nice 6lb+ fish early in the morning. There was no fishing allowed on Bury Lake. I was poaching.
  • Early '90s. A small and incongruous tench from a tiny tributary of the River Kennet known as Fisherman's Brook. This overgrown trickle that you can easily jump across is still on the LAA ticket and very much not the place you might expect to catch a tench!
  • Late '90s. A hefty lump from North Troy gravel pit in the Colne Valley. In the late '70s/early '80s North Troy was controlled by Long Life Angling Club and was one of the best tench waters in the land, arguably second only to Wilstone Res. It was still very good when I fished there in the 1990s, and produced 8lb+ fish for both Rob and me.
  • 6lb 10oz, the Exeter Ship Canal, 2018. Bringing it up to date.
  • In the middle: what happens when both rods go off at the same time. North Troy, late '90s.

And before I go, one for Dyl...

Former British tench record-holder Tony Chester bent into a nice fish. Lester Strudwick waits with the net. This is the car park bank at Wilstone Res, early '80s. Tench Mecca. This is one of the 'hot' areas, hence the proliferation of Brolli-camps, rustic predecessor of the myriad bivvies available today. I hope everyone got on okay, because they are all pretty close to one another!

Friday, 27 April 2018

Old Photos

The weather forecasters got it dead right today. Wet. Knowing about the impending rain inspired me to get a bit ahead with work so that I could relax today. What did I do with the time? Frittered it shamelessly. More specifically, I got out some boxes of old photos and had a good wallow. This is one of the best ways to fritter that I know.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few snaps that I found. Birds first...

Least Sandpiper, Porthscatho, March 1986
This obliging little beauty was poking around a damp gully on a Cornish clifftop. My old mate Ric reminded me of it a couple of posts back, so I was pleased to find this photo. Note the mirror lens 'donuts' in the out-of-focus background. Still the primitive Russian Zenit B and Helios combo, but I was experimenting with slide film and had a few prints made from the best shots. The Least Sand was a supplementary twitch following the mega Gyr Falcon at Berry Head that same morning.


Female Little Crake, Cuckmere Haven, 1985
A ridiculously tame bird, this. I recall it was a midweek twitch and that I went alone because my usual twitch companions were all at work. I also remember driving back through central London straight afterwards as I had to be at work myself that afternoon. And I made a couple of gloaty phonecalls too. Yes, I did that. Bad. Several years ago I posted a very poor colour photo of this bird on BirdForum and quipped about how this Water Rail just would not pose properly. Bit naughty really. It nearly got out of hand...


And back to 1984 now...


The friendly Pectoral Sandpiper, Staines Res, September 1984
Rear view of the cracking Pec that featured a couple of posts back.


Lesser Yellowlegs, Beddington, September 1984
I haven't been to Beddington for 25 years, but I don't miss it one bit. For one thing, Beddington was a nightmare to get to from where I lived in the NW segment of the London area. Yet I have seen some very good birds there. This Lesser Yellowlegs for example, a London tick at the time. Also Tawny Pipit and flight views of Quail. But it's the birds I didn't see that leave the most indelible memories. And not good ones...

It's February 1984 and I'm on night shifts. Just before leaving for work I get a call from John Herbert: Garry Messenbird had found a Killdeer at Beddington that afternoon. A Killdeer!! If I remember right, it had flown around a bit and he'd eventually lost it, but of course there would be plenty of hopefuls there at first light to look for it. I was now in a dilemma. After a night's work I didn't relish the ghastly drive to Beddington on the off-chance. But suppose it was still there and I didn't go? In the end I asked John to call me if it was relocated. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I got home, went to bed, and was woken a short while later by the inevitable phonecall. Half-comatose I crawled through the hideous traffic to Beddington. I was about 30 minutes too late. A flock of White-fronts later that morning were scant compensation.

Fast-forward almost a decade and Beddington is now a very different place. In the early '80s you could stroll down Mile Road, over the railway bridge and walk straight in. By the early '90s it was Fort Knox. Key-holders only. Which was no big deal until a Rustic Bunting turned up and decided to stay for the winter. This was a London tick for everybody, but now available to only a privileged few. I wasn't too bothered really, being on a bit of a birding hiatus at the time. However, one of the key-holders assured me that if I turned up on such-and-such a day, at such-and-such a time, someone would be there to escort me in and help me look for the bird. I duly turned up and was met as agreed. However, I was then informed that due to my 'known' friendship with certain West London birders (with whom some of the Beddington crew were evidently at odds) I was deemed persona non grata, and could therefore go whistle. The key-holder then stepped through the gate, locked it behind him and walked off. I couldn't believe it. Some stupid, petty, immature little feud that I knew nothing about had led to a grown man behaving like this towards a bloke he'd never met. Pathetic. Ironically, arrangements were made shortly afterwards to provide open access to non key-holders for a weekend in order to twitch the Rustic Bunting. I think there was even a Little Bunting present as well! But I didn't go. In fact, I doubt I'll ever go there again.