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...