Friday, 19 April 2019

The Slacker's Lot

A few weeks ago Kev Hale, one of the Seaton birders, started a patch WhatsApp group and kindly asked if I'd like to be included. Although I haven't contributed much, I have enjoyed keeping tabs on what's being seen on my old patch...

[Ha! Literally as I was typing that last sentence, the following appeared on the WhatsApp message board: 'A boat's just sunk off the Spot On. All people been rescued by lifeboats'. I expect you realised my sentiment mostly relates to bird news though...]

The daily mention of migrant sightings, etc, has prompted me to keep the optics dusted, and I've even made a couple of brief sorties into the field when I've been working in the area. But apart from a few Willow Warblers and the odd Swallow I haven't seen much. Nevertheless, I think the steady drip, drip of bird news - relevant bird news at that - has kind of kept me plugged in, so to speak, and was probably a contributing factor in getting me out seawatching just recently. Which reminds me...

The events of the previous post were not my only seawatching endeavours that day. In the evening Steve posted on the WhatsApp group that a pale phase Arctic Skua had gone E at 19:04. Remembering the Pom-sharing events of two years ago I thought I'd try and see it from Burton Bradstock. I was there by 19:20 but unfortunately the Arctic was a no-show. Even so, I sat there until it was too dark to see, and added c.75 Dunlin (in four groups), 9 Ringed Plovers, 25 Manxies, 3 Common Scoter and 8 Sandwich Terns to the morning's tally. Shortly before I packed up at 20:15 I had a distant flock of what looked like Whimbrel, about a dozen birds. I mentioned this to Steve, who replied that 11 Whimbrel had flown E past Seaton at 19:40. Nice. Incidentally, a quick check through my old Seaton records tells me that 75 Dunlin is the most I've ever seen on a Lyme Bay seawatch!

Anyway, I didn't start this post to talk about seawatching again, but rather to get the birding stuff up to date. Because, finally, this morning I got my finger out and went for an early morning stroll from Burton to Cogden and back...

Last year I saw my first Wheatear on March 20th. Here it is...


20/3/2018. Wheatear at Coronation Corner on the Axe Estuary. Lunch-break jam.

This year there's been no such fluky encounter. Minimal birding effort = no Wheatears at all so far. Serves me right, of course. But honestly, how can a so-called birder get most of the way through April without seeing a Wheatear?? However, I made up for that this morning. At least 15 Wheatears were my first of 2019. Also new for the year: 1 Whinchat, 1 Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat, Sand Martin, House Martin, Reed Warbler and a fly-by White Wagtail.

I'd forgotten how exciting it is to see freshly-arrived Wheatears on the beach, and to watch a tiny warbler zip across the shingle into the first bit of cover following its cross-channel epic.

Stuff it! This isn't right! Where's the lighthouse???

There is an urgency to many new arrivals, a need to hurry on inland, and frequently Wheatears on the beach don't stay there long. On my return I bumped into a few of these, plus a cracking little Whinchat...



I'm not saying I'm properly back birding again, but this morning's walk certainly didn't do any harm...

Monday, 15 April 2019

A Little Crisis of Confidence

Some birders have no time at all for seawatching.
I get that.
A slow seawatch is a terrible thing. Irretrievable minutes of precious life tick away as you sit there in futile anticipation. And before you know it, a whole hour that could have been joyously spent on YouTube puppy videos has been frittered on a dribble of Gannets and Fulmars...

But me, I like seawatching. A lot.

One of the attractions is the ever-present possibility of massive surprise. And it doesn't even need to be something rare. Of course, there are birds that you'll struggle to see at all without doing the occasional seawatch - skuas and shearwaters spring to mind - but quite often the seawatch highlight won't be a pukka seabird at all. Take this morning...

Like many a south coast birder I'd been watching the forecast, and today's looked quite promising. A strong wind from the SE or thereabouts; mostly cloudy. I struggled to get out of bed though, and wasn't at Burton Bradstock until 06:40. Things were not fast and furious, but a few Gannets were moving through, which always gives me hope. Shortly after 07:00 I picked up a small flock of ducks, or should I say a flock of small ducks? At least, they looked small. Admittedly, the only ducks I'd seen thus far were three Common Scoter, but this lot definitely looked smaller than Scoters. I'd picked them up rather late, and though they weren't far out I only had about 15 or 20 seconds to sort them out. My knee-jerk analysis was 'Garganey'. They were fast and tight, and I couldn't decide whether there were 8 or 9. I could see several pale upperwings, but they were zipping past so rapidly that I couldn't really swear I'd got the drakes' head pattern...and then they were gone.

Ooh, I thought, conscious of some biochemical stuff going on, that's a little adrenaline rush there. Cool.

Aware that there would be birders situated off to the east of me, I composed a tweet: 'Flock of 8 or 9 Garganey E past Burton Bradstock'...

My thumb hovered over the 'Tweet' button...and suddenly I had a small crisis of confidence.

Were they definitely Garganey?
Definitely?
After all, you've only been watching about 25 minutes, and seen just 3 Scoter, right? Your only ducks so far. Have you got your eye in properly yet? That's right: no, you haven't. And how many times have you seen Garganey on a seawatch exactly? Just three times, ever, yes? Precisely. So what are the chances that they truly were Garganey then, eh? You know, probability-wise??

Er, very, very low indeed?

Correct.

And so my draft Tweet was never sent.

I have this vivid memory of standing in a phonebox adjacent to Staines Res in June 1983. I have been watching a stonking little Red-necked Phalarope on the drained north basin. A female in full breeding plumage. A proper stunner, and totally unmistakable. And there I am, 10p in hand, hesitating to make the first call. Why? Because this ludicrous thought has wormed its insidious way into my head: why isn't it a Grey Phal in breeding plumage, rather than Red-necked? Are you 100% sure you're not dropping an almighty clanger?
Yep, I know. Ridiculous. And thankfully, reason quickly returned. But I've never forgotten that lesson in how easily the mind can sow seeds of doubt. So there I was this morning, almost sure I'd just seen a flock of Garganey, but...

Anyway, you can probably guess that I very much hoped someone further east would see them too. A bit later, this...

This photo genuinely made my day!

So there we go, a classic example of a seawatch being made especially memorable by non-seabirds.

My first Arctic Skua of the year - a rather distant dark-phase bird - was also a highlight, but somewhat shaded into second place this morning...