Friday, 30 March 2018

The Birder vs. Photographer Issue

Back in September 1984 I took this photo of a Pectoral Sandpiper...



The location was Staines Res, on the drained N basin. My photographic kit was primitive in the extreme: a cheap, Russian, fully manual Zenit B coupled with a cheap, Russian, fully manual Helios 500mm mirror lens. That hefty lump of iron was mounted on my regular birding tripod, and getting this shot entailed climbing the reservoir fence, scuttling down the concrete apron, and slowly creeping up on the happily feeding Pec. Then I just waited, hunched and uncomfortable, as it moved towards me. I think I used a whole roll of film, but almost every shot has slightly blurred bits because the bird was either out of focus or moving too rapidly for the slow shutter speed to freeze. It was totally relaxed in my presence, and at times came too close.

If memory serves correctly, the only other person around that day was my old mate Ric, watching from the causeway. Eventually I'd used up my film and quietly withdrew, rejoining him there. I think it was the above photo that was subsequently published in the 1984 London Bird Report.

All good.

The following year, in late May, I found 2 Temminck's Stints at Staines, this time on the drained S basin. There was one other birder present and he let me put the news out via his carphone - a major novelty in 1985! At some point that day I was alone on the causeway, so tried to repeat my Pec Sand success with the stints. Over the fence, down the concrete apron and then a lot of creeping and crouching. It didn't work. The birds simply wouldn't play ball, and were never in a position where I could get ahead of them and so let them approach me. Eventually I gave up and retreated with a whole bunch of 10th-rate exposures. Rubbish.

Arriving back on the causeway I was instantly taken to task by a newly-arrived birder. "There's always some selfish photographer chasing the birds and spoiling it for everyone else!" he complained. My reaction was not good. After all, hadn't I just found these birds and put the news out so that the likes of him could come and see them? The ingratitude! But also, if I'm honest, I felt a large twinge of guilt that I'd been 'caught' in the act of trying to creep up and get very close to the birds and bag myself a frame-filler; I shouldn't really have done it with the likelihood of other birders turning up to twitch those Temminck's Stints. This unhealthy combination of emotions led me to respond in a shamefully immature way, and I gave him a right mouthful that he didn't deserve.

Recently a Snowy Owl in Norfolk has once again raised the birder vs. photographer issue. As you can see from the above, it is not new, and with the advent of internet forums and social media it often gets wide publicity these days. I think it is safe to say that it will never go away...

Actually, calling it something like 'the birder vs. photographer issue' misses the point, because they're not really against one another at all. Such a label is just a simplistic way of describing one of many, many scenarios in life where the differing needs of two or more interested parties bring potential for conflict. I'm sure the birder is perfectly happy for the photographer to get his 'superb image', as long as it doesn't interfere with the birder's 'crippling views'. And vice versa. But this will rarely happen, because in the real world the needs of each party don't allow it. The birder wants to get his views and then chat with his mates, and is happy to stand at scope range to do so. The photographer would be content to wait for the bird to come close while he crouches quietly, waiting, but knows it will never do so with all this racket going on. So he tries creeping up on it, gets yelled at, and later sees his face go viral in a 'name and shame' type post. Bad. The very next week he's sitting quietly in a hide with a few of his buddies, waiting for a bird to show. Three hours he waits. Suddenly, there it is! It's on view for about 30 seconds. He snaps away, tweaking his settings, desperate to get a good shot before it disappears. Success! That night, there he is again, his dodgy fizzog illustrating another cry of outrage. This time it's about photographers hogging the slots in hides. 'Name and shame', it says...

A couple of posts back I mentioned a preference for solitude. Alone, with my modest camera, I can creep up on birds whenever I choose. I can do it slowly, gradually, skilfully. Or I can throw caution to the wind and blunder up as inept as you like. If I flush the bird, who's to know? If I don't, well, great.

Alone.

There's a lot to be said for it.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Best-laid Plans...

Ah, it's all gone to pot rather...

By far the most frustrating right now is my running, or rather, lack of it. Everything was going so well...and then I picked up a groin injury of some kind. Nothing crippling, but it just won't go away. It isn't painful to run with it, but afterwards there is soreness and limping. Not good. So I've eased right off, with just four outings in the last 6 weeks. The most recent was on Monday, and thus far I am pain-free. We shall see, but it's nevertheless a frustrating set-back.

The wisest course would probably involve going to see a sports injury specialist, but the 'hobbies' budget doesn't really stretch to 'Physiotherapy Fees'. In lieu of that option there is of course the internet, where suggestions for diagnosis and treatment of absolutely everything are legion. Sadly this hasn't helped as much as I hoped it would; groin injuries seem to be tricky customers. Typical. Hopefully a slow and cautious return to action will see me right...

And then there is bike. As we all know, the weather just lately has been perfect for cycling, with snow, ice and hideous wind chill. Even when it is possible to remain upright, the body switches instantly to survival mode, and within moments of setting out every extremity is shrivelled and bloodless. I'm getting too old to flirt with frostbite, and my woeful tally of just three rides in the last 6 weeks bears testament to that reality.

You'd think I'd be getting fat with the lack of exercise, but an interesting experiment with a largely plant-based, whole-food diet since early February has kept the waistline in check. In fact I am the lightest I've been in about 25 years, and only a few pounds heavier than when I got married. The upside of this situation is the fact that there will be less of me to propel uphill come the cycling season proper. I look forward therefore to some Strava glory! The downside, though, is that with less insulation I definitely feel the cold far more than I used to. Roll on shorts-weather...

However, not all is gloomy. For example, I have seen a Wheatear. It even posed for me...

Wheatear rudely interrupts gull-watch, Coronation Corner, March 20th

Yep, that was more than a week ago, and I'll bet there are a few readers who still haven't seen a Wheatear this year. So for once, birding-wise, NQS is there or thereabouts with what's happening right now. Well, not really. I've yet to see another Wheatear. No hirundines either. I kind of got current again today, when I had distant views of what I'm 90% sure was a pair of Garganey disappearing north up the Axe Valley at around 3:00pm this afternoon. They'd been seen by others earlier, so were on my radar, but 90% is a bit too shy of 100 for my liking.

Finally, angling. This too has fallen by the wayside somewhat. Again it's been mostly the weather to blame, but the piking season came to an end without my troubling the creatures further. Rob meanwhile has set his sights on a big perch, and I joined him for an unsuccessful foray to a small, local club lake. We caught plenty of fish - which is always nice - but no perch. And then we learned that a small commercial lake less than a mile away has produced perch well over 4lb. It is called Mangerton Lake, and there are even photos of such beasts on its Facebook page. Rob has been quick to get a couple of short sessions in, and though he's had no perch yet, while he was there a carp angler jammed one out on a pellet, which is most definitely not a standard perch bait. It weighed 4lb 1oz. Perch of this size are far more regular and widespread in recent times, but to me this is still a massive fish. And yet I cannot get excited at the prospect of fishing a murky, over-stocked commercial pond in pursuit of such a specimen. To be honest, angling of this kind is the very antithesis of what appeals to me. Give me a tricky, clear-water venue like the Exeter Canal any day. The mystery of what might swim in such a place is so much more compelling...

I've been picking through some of my old angling photos and came across a couple of monochrome efforts that I printed up in the camera club darkrooms when I worked at Kodak. Photos are so good at bringing it all back aren't they? The scene is Startops Res (one of the Tring reservoirs) some time in the very early '80s I think. I remember it was cold, and windy, and the fishing so dire that I nodded off behind my brolly. That's Ric there on the left, and the woefully underdressed Mark on the right wishing he'd worn some actual winter clothing; in fact I don't think he even had a brolly. Anyway, Ric, if you read this please remind me of the date!

Evidently I didn't worry about a little dust on the negs...

Fibreglass rods, Mitchell reels, the ubiquitous camping bedchair. All very vintage!

Ric modelling a nice, stiff and smelly Barbour jacket. My brolly in the background.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Solitary Man

I have a nasty cold right now. After a virus-free year or so it was inevitable that I would catch something eventually, because all around me have been dropping like flies this winter. But instead of resting yesterday I foolishly took it to work with me, whereupon it beat me up a bit and made me come home early.

Before I did that though, just a quick look at the estuary...

Yes, it's that Caspian Gull again.

With the tide rising, the best bunch of big gulls was on the island just north of Coronation Corner, and there amongst them all was the Caspian Gull which I first saw on 22 Jan, in almost exactly the same spot. I had my scope this time, and took a few record shots as it preened. I only had it for a few minutes before something spooked the gulls, with the majority departing downriver. I departed also, sniffing wetly...

I am in my element with this kind of birding. First of all, it's gulls. Always a plus. Secondly, economy of effort. If I were to tot up the time I've spent checking the estuary this year it wouldn't amount to more than a handful of hours I expect, yet I've done pretty well out of it. Thirdly, I am alone, and I like being alone.

When I first got the birding bug as a young man I did a lot of twitching. Wherever large crowds of Barbour-clad men and women hurried awkwardly at dawn along woodland paths and seawalls, and then gathered, steaming and murmuring, in worship of some lost waif, so did I. Sometimes a twitch would be good-natured and relaxed, with the bird easy to see and the viewing unrestricted. Other times, quite the opposite. On such occasions many would allow their desperation to turn them into something quite unpleasant, resolutely oblivious to anyone's interests but their own. I found myself despising such people and their affect on me, and the herd mentality which spawns them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in just a few years the thrill of twitching palled...

I am now a lot older and almost entirely solitary in my habits. If you should encounter me in the field, actually birding, the chances are that I will actively avoid you. Exceptions to this rule are if I know you, or have a good bird to share (I'm not a complete oaf) but otherwise I generally keep to my own company. At this point you may well be thinking "Sad old so-and-so...", and perhaps you're right, but sadder still is the fact that there are quite a lot of us around. Last year for example, I uncharacteristically approached another birder while visiting Staines Res, and received an unmistakeably cold shoulder. Probably he was a decent enough bloke, and assuming he was also a Staines regular it's likely we had a bit in common and could have enjoyed a good old natter. Instead we both missed out.

Saddest of all though is why this happens. Why should a perfectly gregarious young birder gradually become less so with time, to a great extent withdrawing from active engagement with his/her fellow hobbyists? A clue is contained within Jono Lethbridge's recent thought-provoking post, The Echo Chamber. It sounds like facets of our internet age have merely compounded those challenges and difficulties inherent in birding generally, and twitching in particular. We live in a basically selfish world that lacks kindness, and many allow these traits to rub off on them, to influence their thinking and actions, and I suspect that what happens as a consequence is this...

There will be some who put up with it for a while, maybe even join in to a degree, but who eventually realise that they are finding it increasingly distasteful. Arriving at a twitch, they stand off to one side, well away from the scrum. One day, utterly wound-up by some hideous behaviour or other, they walk away and go somewhere else, all interest in the rarity lost. Eventually they don't bother going at all. In time even a hide full of birders becomes hard to cope with, and nowadays they are to be found only where the sky is big and the risk of company small. Are they overly sensitive? Perhaps. But they have my understanding.

And I can tell them this: it'll get worse as they get older!

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Hard Weather

Some of the most spectacular birding I have ever enjoyed has been a consequence of very cold weather. For example, the events of 18 December 2010, recounted in this post. Skylarks that time; at others it has been winter thrushes, Snipe, Lapwings etc, basically whatever species were induced by the cold to move. Today it was Lapwings and Golden Plover...

Despite the recent freeze, locally we were still in a snow-free pocket this morning. So I got up early and ventured to Burton Bradstock to look at the sea for a bit. My theory was that assorted wildfowl might be frozen off their usual freshwater haunts and come piling along the coast in vast and interesting flocks. For at least the first hour of daylight my theory was proved wholly incorrect, so I went home for some breakfast.

While out for a walk around 09:30 I noticed a few straggly groups of Lapwings passing over. Tweets from further W suggested this might be part of a larger movement, so at 10:15 I was back at Burton Bradstock and soon heading along the coast path towards Cogden. En route in the van I'd noted Lapwings and Golden Plovers grounded on the roadside fields W of Burton, and it was quickly evident why. Flocks of both were streaming by, sometimes 40 or 50-strong. It was hopeless trying to count them; birds were passing left and right of me as I progressed, some well inland and some coming in off the sea, having been forced offshore by the relentless, freezing wind. Mostly they were staying quite low too, sometimes appearing in front of me suddenly, and gone just as rapidly.

It was spectacular, but at the same time pitiful. I knew they were heading for weather at least as bad as that which they were trying to escape. Scattered among the plovers were scores of Fieldfares and Redwings, up to maybe 15 at a time, along with a few Meadow Pipits and a single Snipe. By the time I got back to Burton at around 12:15 I estimated 2000+ Golden Plovers and many more (6000+??) Lapwings had gone past in two hours. If someone told me it was double that I wouldn't be surprised. And still they came, though in much-reduced numbers now.

I did get my wildfowl in the end: a little flock of something like 11 Wigeon and 3 Teal E offshore, and a handful of Shoveler plus a couple more Teal trying to find some wobbly water among the reeds of the Burton Mere. Unbeknown to me, the West Bexington Mere briefly played host to a couple of drake Garganey, which would have been a terrific test of my adrenal system had they flown past Cogden!

Golden Plovers heading west. My camera (and photo-skills) no match for the situation...
Beside the coast path at the caravan park E of Burton.

These were the most unpleasant birding conditions I have experienced in many years; the wind was especially vicious. Despite gloves I can honestly say my fingers were numb within 20 minutes, and never recovered. Consequently it was very difficult trying to photograph anything. There was also some mild frustration when I couldn't clinch what looked like a 'small grebe sp' that was too distant for bins. Nevertheless, great birding. But at what cost to the weather-driven travellers...?

Although I haven't posted for a while, I have been checking the Axe Estuary gulls whenever I can, but with little reward. The best I can offer is two adult Med Gulls that were close enough together to just about squeeze in to the same photo...

I never tire of these beautiful gulls. Always a pleasure...

Finally, fishing news...

On Monday Rob and I finally got out on the River Frome at Wool to try for grayling together. Our original plan had been to do this in December, but illness, work and awful river conditions have conspired against us. The stretch concerned closes to coarse fishing on 28 February, so we had just a few days available still, and plumped for Monday. Virtually overnight the temperature plummeted and we knew we were in for a bitterly cold, windy day as the so-called 'Beast from the East'* arrived. I managed three sessions in December and caught at least a few grayling each time, up to 1lb 4oz, so had earmarked three 'banker' swims for Rob to try in order to catch his first grayling. Predictably, in the conditions, not a single bite from any of them.

So we moved downstream a bit, to a stretch I hadn't fished before, and put a brave face on it...

Very cold. I am wearing six layers, and wishing it were more.

Eventually, it happened...

Rob's first grayling. At 1lb 9oz it is also bigger than any I've ever caught!

And that was it. No more grayling for either of us...

We've got a little friendly competition going again this year. Similar to last year in that the biggest of each species that we catch earns a pint, except this year we are limiting it to 'specimen'-sized fish only, so no minnows or tiddlers. Prior to Monday's outing we agreed that to qualify as a specimen a grayling would need to weigh 1lb 8oz or more. Typical. Rob is also winning on pike, with his 23lb 1oz lump. Technically the jammy so-and-so has actually had three twenties this year, as he caught the 23-pounder twice! Clearly, I taught him well...

* 'Beast from the East' = journalistically hyperbolised cold snap originating in Russia.