Thursday, 31 October 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 2: Getting it Wrong

Today we'll be dealing with honest mistakes. I mention this because the generic catch-all 'Dodgy Birders' encompasses all kinds of really weird stuff, and in this chapter we're not quite opening that door yet...

One spring in the early 1980s I was invited to join a London Bird Race team. Being a relatively new birder I was flattered, because the rest of the team comprised three pillars of the W London birding scene back then, much better and more experienced birders than me. At my suggestion we were trying a place called Bentley Priory for Hawfinch, but after slogging around for quite a while it looked like we were on a loser. There was one final spot to check, and to do so we had to climb a slope and scan the treetops. I hurried up the hill to look. Amazingly, there was a Hawfinch! Perched right up on the highest twigs of a distant tree, like they do. A bit far away for bins, and just a silhouette really, but definitely a Hawfinch. I called to the others, who were trudging up the slope much more slowly than I had, no doubt resigned to the blank. They stopped, turned, looked, and asked: "Where is it in relation to that Greenfinch, Gav?"

When it comes to bird identification, every single birder gets it wrong sometimes. Over the years I've dropped some right clangers, occasionally as embarrassing as that one was!

Does that make me a dodgy birder? I sincerely hope not. You earn that accolade not from a few mistakes, but from a catalogue of persistent dodginess built over time. Every birder makes mistakes. What marks a birder as dodgy is how he deals with them.

Take my not-a-Hawfinch debacle. Let's replay it...

"Where is it in relation to that Greenfinch, Gav?"
  • Option 1: "My bad! Sorry lads, I thought it was a Hawfinch!"
  • Option 2: "Oh no! It's just dropped out of sight, about 6 feet to the right of the Greenfinch!"
Let's not be coy. Option 2 is a big fat lie. In part 3 we'll explore this area a little further, but for now, let's consider why someone would even consider lying.

Basically it's to save face, isn't it? The shame and embarrassment of looking like a total noddy is simply too much to bear, so we'll just employ the two-bird theory to wriggle out of an awkward situation. Perfectly understandable. Trouble is, look at what happens next...

"Oh, that's a shame. Never mind Gav, at least we know there's a Hawfinch here, so let's stake it out for a while."

Then follows an indefinite period of weasely squirming.

"About six feet to the right, you reckon Gav?"
"Mmm."
"Where that tall, forked twig sticks up?"
"Yes, near there."
"By that dead branch?"
"Yes, yes. That's the spot."

Three more lies. If my conscience wasn't in torment now, there would really be no hope for me.

"Dropped down, you say? To the right? To the left?"
"Neither really. More like immediately behind that forked twig. Can't have gone far..."

Strewth! Another whopper. And now I'm dressing them up with tinsel and glitter. I am truly loathsome.

This is called digging a hole, and the moment I chose option 2, I picked up the spade. Let's say we gave it another ten minutes. No Hawfinch of course, and as we walk back to the car I might be  thinking I'd got away with it. But you know what? My three companions would have clocked it. They were pretty sure there had only ever been the Greenfinch. Not quite one-hundred-percent sure, but close enough. They would compare notes in my absence, remember and discuss all my deceitful wriggling. From that point on I would be marked. Perhaps dodgy birders do not appreciate that fact? Do this kind of thing frequently enough and your name will be mud.

Anyway, in the event I thankfully chose option 1. I held up my hand and my three companions, with the wisdom of their own experience no doubt, put it down to over-enthusiasm and laughed it away.

True, it takes humility to own up to mistakes. But needing to be right all the time is a fatal flaw, and will a dodgy birder make.

In part 3 of the Dodgy Birders series, we'll examine the topic of trust, and why its betrayal is dodginess of the most heinous kind.

Derek Stringer has just claimed the Scarlet Tanager...

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

A Small, Encouraging Thing

The Little Auk Quest continued this morning. Day 2. Assessing conditions at Burton Bradstock beach first thing, I wasn't too discouraged. Not as cold, and though the wind was lighter it was still basically from the east. I'm usually a glass-half-full kind of bloke, so I expect you can picture me settling onto my special Questing Rock in a cheery kind of way, and adjusting my tripod to perfection with its little spirit level thing. I was ready...

Birds came, but none of them was a Little Auk. Nevertheless, one thing I love about late autumn seawatching here is its capacity to surprise. For example, I wasn't expecting a flock of 4 Goosanders to fly past (plus a single later) because they are seawatch gold. Wrestling with the old Goosanders??Mergs?? chestnut that early in the morning was an unanticipated joy. They're never drakes are they?! And a Sandwich Tern came by also. It feels like a lifetime since I last saw one of them. Other entertainment was provided by 3 Brents, 7 Teal, 18 Common Scoter, 18 Wigeon, a Great Crested Grebe and 27 Dunlin, plus another 3 unidentified waders which were probably Dunlin too. A grey seal went through E. Slowly. And I was jammily looking at exactly the right spot to see 2 harbour porpoises roll together, a new cetacean for me locally.

It wasn't fast and furious, but variety was there, and a gentle flow of action. What more do you need?

I'm nursing a cold right now, so rather than tempt fate by going to work and getting all strenuous, I persuaded Mrs NQS that we should drive to the Abbotsbury beach car park and walk very sedately along the Burton Road a bit. I recently learned that this stretch of coast is very underwatched, and investigating it has been a lot of fun. I've discovered, for example, that 85% of the world's Med Gull population resides here. Even better, the location is home to a rather exciting tamarisk belt. As any birder who's been to Scilly knows, tamarisk is where Blackpoll Warblers live. And anything else that likes to skulk mercilessly. At East Bexington there is a great big windbreak of the stuff just behind the beach. It is alive with birds, but of course they are a nightmare to see. However, all is not hopeless. Bordered by a 4-pixel-wide yellow ring is a sallow clump, and if you stand next to it you will notice skittery little birds flitting in and out of it from the tamarisk across the road. Here they spend a bit of time feeding, and are much easier to see. Until now, all I had managed were a few Chiffs and Goldcrests, but today we found a Firecrest! Yay! I love Firecrests and don't see them anything like often enough. In the absence of Little Auk, it became today's small, encouraging thing.

Shuffling back to the car, bunged up to the eyeballs with catarrh, head throbbing, nose like a tap, I was well chuffed.

The Sallow Clump of Delight

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Quest for a Little Auk

In this neck of the woods, Little Auk is a major birding prize. But, if it's going to happen, now is the time...

I've seen ten late-autumn Little Auks in Lyme Bay, all of them fly-bys. Four E past Branscombe on 3/11/06, two W there the following day, one W past Seaton on 10/11/07 and three there (2E, 1W) two days later. And I think I am right in saying that all those sightings were the result of a specific effort to try for Little Auk. Something about my hyper-tuned birdy senses told me that I should go out right there and then, and embark upon a quest for Little Auk. Or it might have been the weather patterns, or their presence down the E coast, or something...I don't know...

Anyway, I scored!

I got the very same feeling in my water a couple of days back, and was unwise enough to post a prediction on the patch WhatsApp group: '...someone will get Little Auk before next weekend.'

Obviously this needs to come true if it's not to look like my birdy senses are shot to bits. So, starting this morning, I began this year's quest...

Burton Bradstock beach. Little Auk Quest. Day 1.
It was freezing first thing. Strong ENE. Nasty. Thankfully this spot is sheltered in such conditions. By 09:00 the highlights were 26 Dunlin, 3 Sanderlings, 2 Turnstones, c.10 unidentified waders, 6 Brents, 5 Common Scoter, 2 Wigeon and a Teal. A few Med Gulls too, but as you know, they have lost their right to be counted. Everything bar 2 Scoter flew E, though a little group of Dunlin climbed up and flew inland over my head.

No Little Auks today. We quest on...

Monday, 28 October 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 1: Bird Identification

In May I turned 60. This makes me nearly old. I've noticed that when you get fully old, you can say exactly what you think about stuff and totally get away with it. It seems to be a privilege tolerantly afforded to the not-here-much-longer. I optimistically assume I'm not yet in that category, so it may be that I won't quite get away with what I plan to write over a few posts...

A topic which has fascinated me for many years is that of dodgy birders. If I were to write an NQS glossary, it would include this entry:

Dodgy Birder: a birder whose sightings you cannot trust one little bit.

Of course, dodginess can feature in many hobbies. In angling, for example, it might involve a fish's claimed weight, or the quantity of a multiple catch, but can also include various behaviours, like poaching waters for which you don't have a ticket, nicking swims that you know have been carefully prepared by another angler, and so on. But the dodgy angler is another blog post altogether. Dodginess in birding generally involves the identification of one or several birds, the numbers seen, and, in the worst cases, the actual existence of those birds at all. So, let's begin by examining a fundamental question...

Why is bird identification important?
I know folk who cannot separate a House Sparrow from a Starling. And interestingly, they don't care. But that's because they're not birders. Birders do care. Birders care greatly about identification, because it is birding's keystone. Our hobby simply could not exist without it; there would be no field guides, no lists, no counts, no common birds, no scarce birds, no rarities, no bird reports, no surveys, no ringing data, no population monitoring, no species-focused conservation, no reintroduction schemes, etc, etc. And whole branches of birdy science would be redundant. Taxonomy, for example. Hmm. Actually, that one might not be so bad...
Anyway, there are lots of activities where identifying birds is not a vital, integral fundament of the thing, but birding isn't one them.

So, next question...

Why does correct identification matter?
Well, if you bird alone and never interact with any other birders in any way whatsoever, and keep all of your nonsense to yourself, it doesn't matter. You can muck stuff up (or make it up) all you like. Feel free. But if you are not a birding hermit, correctly identifying what you see matters a great deal, from the very moment your sighting is shared with another birder. And there are several potential reasons. As an example, let's say matey has identified a pukka rarity on his local nature reserve. What might be the consequences of sharing this discovery with another birder?

Well, the next few minutes/hours of their life might be profoundly influenced by that identification...
  • They might start running immediately, with inherent risks to their physical wellbeing.
  • They might jump in their car and burn a lot of fossil fuel, with inherent risks to the planet's wellbeing.
  • They might stand still in a cold, draughty spot for a long time, inviting nasty chills and shrivelling.
  • They might share the sighting with their birding buddies, with obvious ramifications.
  • And so on...

A rarity is an extreme example, but it doesn't take much - just an interesting migrant, or passing seabird maybe - to influence what another birder might do now that he wouldn't have done otherwise. When we touch the lives of other birders in that way - the very second we interact with them based upon an identification we have made - surely we bear a responsibility? They're not just some indifferent Joe Public who couldn't give a monkey's what name we give the boring brown thing. They're a fellow birder, a comrade of the anorak, and that should very much mean something. Shouldn't it?

Pied Wheatear twitch, Scilly 2010
A good number of birders (Mrs NQS and I included) hurried breathlessly to this spot on St Mary's because someone shared an identification he'd made. Correct ID clearly mattered to him, and in this case he had happily got it right. But there is always another possibility...

In part 2 of the Dodgy Birders series, we will address the 'Getting it Wrong' scenario, and the options open to us when we do so, with special emphasis on dodginess...

Sunday, 27 October 2019

A Nice Rarity

Mid-morning on October 16th I tried a half-hour seawatch from Burton Bradstock. Conditions were unexciting. The wind was moderate - certainly not too strong to prevent me from sitting on one of the benches just above the beach - and it was dry. Highlights included a gorgeous adult Little Gull, 7 Brents and a drake Tuftie. Quite pleasing, especially the Little Gull.

That's a typical example of a short, impromptu seawatch producing some nice goods. I sat down with no expectations whatsoever, and was pleasantly surprised.

The opposite of that scenario is when you go to bed with a howling hoolie blowing outside, knowing it's going to be blasting away all night and filling Lyme Bay with storm-blown waifs. You're so excited that sleep is impossible, and you're up and out before dawn. Settling into your favourite seawatching spot, you are absolutely bursting with expectation...

Well, that's how it used to be.

Unfortunately I am a veteran of countless really, really bad Lyme Bay seawatches following a night of howling hoolie, and I now know better.

Nevertheless, I was up fairly early yesterday morning, and in position at Cogden by 08:00. It was still really windy. The sea was rough as you like. By 09:00 my tally was a paltry 2 Red-throated Divers, 2 Brents, 9 Common Scoter and 50+ Gannets. Disappointing. But so, so predictable. When the rain began, that was all the excuse I needed to call it a day.

I have had good results from stormy seawatches locally. The only 2 Leach's Petrels I've seen while seawatching in Lyme Bay were off Seaton seafront after a late-autumn night like Friday, and I found my first Seaton Grey Phalarope in the heaving surf a few days prior, likewise following a stormy night. But, rewards like that are not the norm.

Here's a fun fact. On September 2nd, 2009, at opposite ends of Lyme Bay, both Portland Bill and Berry Head had record day-counts of Sooty Shearwater: 177 at PB and a staggering 582 at BH. Seaton had...

None at all!

I can't recall if that was following a stormy night, but I expect so; sounds absolutely typical.

And on a different note...

I suspect this might be the rarest thing I find this year.

Convolvulus Hawk Moth larva, Bridport, 21/10/2019
I found this wrinkly wonder quite close to my house, and at first glance thought it was some sort of poo. Understandable I think. Anyway, Twitter to the rescue, and it was identified for me within seconds. Steve Nash, a self-confessed 'moth geek' who runs @MigrantMothUK, has found just one in 40 years of moth-geekery. I don't want to seem ungrateful, because it was a privilege to encounter such a rare and impressive beastie, but next time I'll take a Bluetail thanks.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

The Mediterranean Gull

This is a Mediterranean Gull...

A super-smart adult on Burton Bradstock beach

The date of my first encounter with one of these lovely gulls is lost in the mists of time, but I can remember the location precisely. It was right here...

This is the coast road just W of Kelling in North Norfolk. It was some time in the autumn of 1982, and that stubble field was all ploughed up. Mrs NQS and I joined a handful of birders here on this bend to look for a Med Gull that was hanging out with a crowd of BHGs [Thank you, Google Street View]

That bird was an adult, and I made a nice pen-and-ink sketch of its head in my notebook. I was pleasantly surprised at how distinctive it was, with its pure white primaries. I thought to myself "Hmm, gulls aren't as scary as I imagined. I reckon I could do one of these..."

My second Med Gull wasn't long in coming. Within a few days I had indeed found one for myself at Staines Res. Also an adult, I picked it up flying S over the causeway with BHGs late one afternoon. A couple of days later it did it again, at the very same time. That particular bird became so reliable that you could stake it out and predict its arrival within a few minutes. Local birders would turn up and wait for it to appear. Yes, they twitched it. Twitched a Med Gull. In W London in 1982, Med Gull was a pretty decent find!

Until 1963 Med Gull was actually a BB rarity. I no longer have the relevant London Bird Reports, but I'll bet there were no more than a dozen or so records a year in the early 80s. In that context you will appreciate that it was a bird well worth searching for in any gathering of small gulls, and quite a prize whenever you found one. Which wasn't often.

So I've always had a soft spot for this handsome species, because it is probably responsible more than any other for encouraging me to painstakingly sift through gull flocks.

Or perhaps I should curse it...?

Anyway, throughout my time as a birder in the London area, Mediterranean Gull was never common. Not even slightly. So when I moved to Seaton in Devon in 2002 it was still a 'good value' bird. Following a birding hiatus of several years, the move slowly rekindled my interest, and I was delighted to learn that Med Gull was a regular winter visitor to the Axe estuary. Soon I was seeing them quite often, usually just one or two at a time. It became routine to check through  the estuary gulls in order to find them and count them, sometimes even the Seaton Bay winter roost too. I do have records from my time on the Axe, and I can tell you that in the years 2004-2010 I recorded Med Gull some 298 times, that I made double-figure counts on just four occasions, and that my highest tally of 16 (all adults) on 19 February 2010 was never bettered before I moved to Dorset in 2015.

Well, what a difference a few miles make!

Here I am in Bridport now, probably 15 miles E round the Lyme Bay coast from Seaton, and something has happened to my beloved Med Gull. Something dreadful...

Initially there was nothing to worry about. I quickly noticed that Med Gulls were a bit more common, but that was all. I was still noting that I'd seen 4, or 6, or 9, or however many. And then one day I realised that I wasn't being quite so fastidious about the number. It became 'about 4', 'half-a-dozen or so', 'circa 10'. And if the bird was close enough to identify with the naked eye, I sometimes caught myself...gasp!...not raising my bins! Yes, not even bothering to look at them properly.
 
I had barely noticed it happening but, reluctantly, could not deny the obvious fact: Med Gull had lost its value.

Don't get me wrong. I still think they are one of the smartest, most handsome small gulls. Even the first-winter birds are usually neat and crisply marked. But whereas I used to search through a flock of gulls to look for them...well, now I don't. In fact, in the last week or so things have taken a distinct turn for the worse. In an East Bexington field I found a flock of gulls containing so many Meds that sheer curiosity made me want to count them. It was tricky with binoculars alone, but there were at least 44. A day or so later a different field held even more. Here are just some of them...

There were certainly more than 100 Meds in this field

But yesterday was the final straw...

In the afternoon I walked from Abbotsbury to East Bexington, and all along the shoreline was a frenzy of feeding gulls. Huge numbers of mackerel were driving whitebait into the shallow water, and even onto the shingle. There were thousands of gulls and, among them, many, many Meds. Hundreds for sure. Quite possibly they were the most numerous small gull.

What happens when Med Gull becomes the most numerous small gull in a flock? Well, you then start picking through them to find something better...

And what do you call the gulls that you pick through in order to find something better...?

Begins with D. Ends with S.

Just can't bring myself to say it though.

Today I learned that the record Med Gull count for the Weymouth area is 2,200. I was simply amazed by the hugeness of that number, and there's no denying what it means.

But.

Still can't say it...

Monday, 21 October 2019

Not Really About Local Patch Birding, Exactly...

A few days ago I wrote about patch birding, mostly to examine the question 'how local must 'local' be?' and things like that. But I was a bit glib, and did miss some important points, as outlined by Mike Morse here in his comment:

...birding a defined area day after day and year after year you build up a history. We have records, stats and annual reports going back decades. It adds a bit of 'purpose' to the general enjoyment of birding. There is also the habitat improvement and management plans we get involved in and that sit well with permissions gained (from earned trust) to wander pretty much where we want within the recording [area]. Add to that history the anecdotes, shared experiences and excitement of a good find then I reckon it's hard to beat.

The validity of Mike's view of what it means to be a local patch birder is borne out at West Bexington and Cogden. And I take my hat off to birders who have achieved similar results at long-term local patches up and down the country. But I wonder how many such folk there are, and what percentage of the birding population they comprise? My guess is that they are fewer than we might think.

All I know for sure is that I am not one of them. I totally get the idea of such commitment adding 'purpose' to the general enjoyment of birding, but personally my ability (and, to be honest, desire) to put my nose to the grindstone to that degree is simply not there. I cannot do it. Even stuff like breeding bird surveys and WeBS counts, etc, leaves me cold; I know from experience that I would just find them a chore.

So, it seems I am something of a lightweight when it comes to local patch birding, and unwilling to 'contribute' very much. I can imagine the grafters among us having a pretty dim view of an attitude like that...

Well, what can I say in my defense? In my almost 40 years of sporadically keen birding I've thought of a few places as my 'patch', including Staines Res, Stockers Lake, the Axe estuary and marshes, Beer Head. At some or all of them I have, with varying degrees of intensity, kept and submitted records, written reports, and generally made an effort to be an information sharer. And that's about it really. Nowadays I am happiest where there are wide-open skies and few people. Sometimes I record what I see, sometimes not so much. I suspect there are countless part-timers like me out there!

And before anyone comments that I have every right to engage in my hobby in whatever way I want to and shouldn't apologise for it... well, thanks, but I know that. And the fact that someone might feel the need to say that (or think it) kind of illustrates my point, which is this:

There is, in birding as in all the hobbies I have ever tasted, a perceived hierarchy of worthiness. Which I find slightly irritating. And which I find quite daft too, because each of us can only be happy in our pastime when giving it the amount of time, and the type and level of effort, that our circumstances and personality make-up allow, and neither of those things make us more or less worthy than anyone else. Well, that's my view...

Or am I just making excuses for being a lazy birder?

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Questions and Answers

Four questions I've asked myself today:
  1. Ooh! Is that a Yellow-browed?
  2. Was that a Woodlark?
  3. Was that a Brambling?
  4. What was that?..a Snow Bunting??
I almost always bird alone, but my memory tells me that questions like these are just as often heard from birding companions too. Though unless you know one another well, it's more likely to be a simple "What was that call?" or "Hello, what's this in the bush?" without the possible indictment of your birding skills that might result if you keep putting a name to stuff and getting it wrong. To illustrate, the answers to today's four questions were:
  1. I very much doubt it. I found a little group of fast-moving Goldcrests and Chiffs and briefly glimpsed something that made me ask the question. It was almost certainly a badly-seen bit of fast-moving Goldcrest or Chiff!
  2. Probably not. A small party of Skylarks was among the birds going overhead. I only heard the sound once, briefly; it was most likely a badly-heard bit of Skylark. And wishful thinking.
  3. Possibly. A pretty good wheezy call out from the vis-mig birds but, as I was virtually on the beach at the time, the sound of the waves drowned it out somewhat, and I couldn't be sure.
  4. Definitely not. This one illustrates how dreadfully rusty I am. Again, a call heard from some overflying migrants, which in this case looked like a party of finches. The bird called two or three times, and it reminded me of the rippling part of a Snow Bunting's call. But as I haven't heard that in many years I had to check it out on the computer when I got home. Er, it wasn't a Snow Bunting! And I have no idea what it actually was.

As you can tell, I've been out birding again. More than once actually. At West Bexington earlier this week I jammed a male Ring Ouzel sitting in full view in a bush about a quarter-mile away, and had fabulous views of a female Merlin hunting the coastal fields in very leisurely fashion for a change. And today I've been out twice...

This morning I went to Burton Bradstock, but only had until 09:00. To be honest I didn't see much, though I did manage to inject some excitement by means of the first three questions above! The vis mig was getting going quite nicely by the time I was leaving, and prior to going out again at 15:00 I noticed from our WhatsApp 'Patch Birding' group that it was still in progress to some extent. As I drove to West Bexington a couple of sizeable flocks of Stock Doves flew across the road in front of me, heading inland. Parking up, it was obvious that small parties of birds of all kinds were still dribbling through across a pretty wide front, mostly heading somewhere between W and NW. If anyone had been keeping a vis-mig tally all day long I can imagine the totals being pretty amazing. At 15:30 I was standing in Labour In Vain Lane, scanning the distant bushes where I had the Ring Ouzel a few days ago, when I picked up the unmistakeable (this time!) call of a Woodlark somewhere overhead. It was following the line of the lane towards me, and went over quite low and away W, calling constantly. Brilliant! No Ring Ouzels today though...

Down to the sea and eastwards. I must write a post about Med Gulls some time soon, because today they were so ridiculously abundant that they did themselves a disservice really. Yes. It was terrible. Today they almost became... and that 'almost' is important, because I feared this might one day happen and I never, never want it to and am therefore resisting the idea... they almost became... (whisper it)... dross.

So anyway, enough of that heretical talk. Let me tell you about my optics. Today I was using Mrs NQS's bins...

On loan from Mrs NQS: the diddy little Nikon 8x30
Using these little beauties today confirmed for me just how overdue were my Zeiss for a proper refurb. These are crystal clear, sharp and contrasty. My poor old Dialyt 10x40 BGAT are not. Four years ago I thought they still compared quite favourably with my buddy Paul's modern Leicas. But recent times have seen them get all misted up inside. Knackered. When I bought them in 1987 I had high hopes that they might see me out, and if the Sussex-based optical wizard to whom I've sent them is able to work the necessary magic, they may yet...

I will let you know.

Also today, the first outing for my new bridge camera (more of which in another post), which meant it got pointed at all sorts of stuff...

22 Stock Doves W at 16:13. How many through the day I wonder??
17 more Stock Doves W at 16:26
I'll finish off with these two Stonechat pics. Normally I wouldn't have bothered even making the effort, because the light was very dim (it was almost 17:30 and overcast) and they weren't even close, but I was curious to see what the camera could do. I don't have any proper settings sussed yet, so these are simply on aperture-priority, ISO 100-400 auto, with the aperture opened up as wide as possible. Well, at a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1800mm (!!) that isn't very wide - f6.3 in fact. These are also hand-held shots, relying 100% on the camera's image-stabilising software. The shutter speed is a pathetic 1/30 sec. Frankly I am staggered. Those Stonechats are about 40m away (the female a bit further I think) and both images are uncropped...

Thursday, 17 October 2019

The Scilly Log

Until reminded of it yesterday I had forgotten about this vintage NQS post. It dates from 2008, and my first October trip to Scilly since 1991 I think. My excuse for resurrecting it is of course its topicality...



What is 'The Log'?? If you've never been to Scilly in October, and never stayed at a Bird Observatory, you may well have no idea. It is basically this: first, the birders assemble; next, someone runs through the systematic list out loud, species by species (or group of species eg. divers, Hippolais warblers, etc) - this is known as 'calling the log' - and the assembled mob pipe up with their sightings. For example....

"Yellow-browed Warbler on St Mary's?" goes the call. The responses:
"One at the Dump Clump"
"One, Carn Friars"
"Two, Holy Vale"
And so on.

This ritual serves at least two purposes. One, it allows the recorder to collect bird records nice and easily, and two, it is a source of gen for the assembled birders - if they are just recently arrived they will quickly find out what's around.

Actually, the log also provides you with opportunities to display your birding prowess, and shine among your peers. Like this...

Trumping
You've been out all day, with very little to show for your efforts, but you did spend three hours by the weedy field at Telegraph, carefully counting its inhabitants. Tucked away in your notebook are 8 Whinchats, 180 Starlings and 222 Linnets. Being experienced in the log-calling game you know to keep yourself well reigned-in. Hold back that winning count until the other players have revealed their hands.......then hammer them with your hefty score. This is how it goes:
"Whinchat, St Mary's. Whinchat?"
"Three at Telegraph," squeaks an over-eager young thruster. "Pah!" you think.
"Five, Telegraph," intones an earnest, but kindly voice, trying not to crush the youth.
"Six, Telegraph." Ah, that must be the bloke you saw hanging about by the gate for a good half hour. You crane to check, and it is. It looks like the glory is yours for the taking.
"EIGHT, Telegraph," you announce, with careful emphasis and enunciation - there must be no mistaking the number. A hush descends, and admiring eyes glance your way. You swell with pride.
Right then, Starling soon. You relax and sip your pint.
"Starling?" goes the call. "Any counts?"
Steady. Wait for someone else to call first.
"About two hundred at Telegraph," chirps an accursed estimator.
"Pox!" you think.
You still have those Linnets up your sleeve though, and wait patiently for your moment.
"Linnet? Any groups over 50?"
You hold back.
"About two hundred at Telegraph." The very same bloke.
"Hah!" you think, "Gotcha!" and draw sufficient breath to give extra force to your delivery.
"TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-TWO at Telegraph!"
But, just as the heads are once more swivelling in admiration....
"EIGHT HUNDRED AND FORTY-FIVE at the north end, from Telegraph to Watermill." A pause. "TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-SEVEN of those at Telegraph"
Defeated, your shoulders slump.
A ring of worshippers forms around the new Counting Hero.

Actually, watching the trumpers in action is even more fun than doing it!

On my previous October visits the log was always downstairs at the Porthcressa, and was PACKED with sweating birders, ten deep at the bar. Nowadays it is upstairs at the Scillonian Club, and in the first few days of our holiday was attended by just 60-80 birders at the most. The numbers swelled noticeably towards the end of the week, and I took these photos on Saturday 11th.

Will Wagstaff is a long-serving resident IOS birder, wildlife tour leader and thoroughly nice bloke. Here he is, 'calling the log':


Judging by the expressions, we must have been on Starling, or Woodpigeon or something equally riveting

Swinging the camera right a tad gives a view over a fair proportion of the bar's populace, though there were still a load further right and behind me. The first Saturday of the peak week. From counts made at the Sociable Plover twitch on Sunday evening it was estimated that around 500 birders were on the isles. This is apparently par for recent years, but compares to something like double that (at least) in the mid-80s/early 90s. Anyway, here they are:


A Scilly first-timer has just called 2 Nuthatches, a Treecreeper and 6 Magpies. No one quite knows what to do with themselves....

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Yellow-browed Warbler? Ring Ouzel?

The clifftop fields at Burton Bradstock, and the sun coming up over the West Dorset hills. Lovely. The fat end of Portland just visible top right.

A couple of hours at Burton Bradstock this morning. Mine was the first vehicle into the Hive Beach car park, and before I'd even made it past Billy Bragg's house I was stopped by a calling Chiffy. A couple of Goldcrests in the hedge too. Ooh, action! Was this going to be the day I find a local Yellow-browed Warbler? Something I've never managed, that. More than a decade ago I found one in a little village I was working in near Chard in Somerset, but, so far, not anywhere I could legitimately call my patch. Today then??

The grass was dripping as I bee-lined for the scrubby fringe that hangs off the inland side of the clifftop fields, just where the land drops away to a NE-facing slope. The few times I've been up here have convinced me that one day it'll hold a Ring Ouzel. Today maybe??

One or two more Chiffs and 'crests, and a Lesser Whitethroat kept me buoyant. Plus there was a steady flow of overhead goings-on. Swallows, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Chaffinches, alba wagtails, assorted silent bits and bobs. And of course, that constant need to have your eyes everywhere in case a Short-eared Owl or something tries to sneak through.

Coming down off the high ground brings you to a small river, and I followed it back towards the village. It is lined with bushes and trees, including some very birdy-looking sycamores. Was my Yellow-browed along here then?? Two more Lesser Whitethroats were a surprise, a couple more Chiffies and Goldcrests less so.

Too soon I was back in the car park, but managed to string things out a bit longer by having another good look at the bushes, and then a long peer out to sea, where a very distant feeding flock of Gannets had apparently not been able to attract any skuas.

So, Yellow-browed Warbler? No. Ring Ouzel? Er, no. When I make an effort to be conscious of it, I can't help smiling at the number of times I employ that little psychological device, imagining the Yellow-brow here, the Ring Ouzel there, and so on. It certainly keeps me alert, particularly when there are some birds about, like this morning. Is it just me? I doubt it...

Sunday, 13 October 2019

How the Birder's Mind Works

On Twitter today I spotted a screenshot that someone had posted a few days back. It was a bit of negative bird news re a Siberian Stonechat on Unst, Shetland: 'earlier reported individual was a Whinchat', it said.

I suspect this is a prime example of what happens when birders let a natural process run away with them. What natural process? The subconscious analytical machinery that grinds into life every time a birder claps eyes on a bird. It goes something like this...

Bird hops into view, in deep shadow.
   "Hello. What's this?"
Unbeknown to the birder, his mind is already on the case, and makes him say:
   "Another poxy Robin?"
Bird hops out of view. Nothing more than a silhouette was visible.
   "Hmm. Looked a bit slim. Didn't call..."
Yes, the birder's mind is already working hard to elevate a rubbish view of nothing into something.
   "Was there just a hint of pale throat there? Eye-ring even?"
Birder's mind is now just unashamedly inventing stuff.
   "There was a Bluetail up the coast yesterday..."
And there we go, the birder has given free rein to his deceitful thought process, and the door to a very dark place is creaking open...
   "Nah. Just a Robin, surely."
Phew! Birder has regained control.
   "Let's just give it a couple of minutes though."
Safe ground still.
Nothing further happens. Birder walks on, slightly more alert, reputation still intact.

Something like this probably happens hundreds, or even thousands of times a day around the country. Mostly without mishap, I'm sure. Go somewhere like Shetland, though, and you need a firm grip on those reins. If not...

Pale, chat-thing perched on fence, in full view.
   "Hello. What's this?"
Unbeknown to the birder, his mind is already on the case, and (because it knows he's on Shetland, rather than down the local patch) makes him say:
   "Aaargh!! Got to be a Sibe Stonechat! Get in!!!!"
Reason and Logic were both left behind at home, so the birder is now at the complete mercy of his deceitful mind, which is having quite a lot of fun...

So anyway, this all became quite relevant this afternoon when I ventured out once again to East Bexington, because...

Ooh look! There's a pale chat-thing on the fence!

Admittedly, knowing that I was in coastal West Dorset, my mind had already picked 'Whinchat' from the list of options, but it still made me examine the Siberian Stonechat possibilty before I'd even raised my bins. This is healthy enough, and I was grateful to it for doing so. If it had been the latter, I like to think my mind would not have allowed me to overlook it.

Here it is, a little closer...

A nice juv. That supercilium has a life of its own.

This was the most pleasing bird I came across, though 20+ Med Gulls were also superb, as always.

However, the most intriguing event of the afternoon involved something offshore. I am scanning the choppy sea with my bins, roughly in line with Portland Bill...

A low, dark shape on the surface, gently curved, quite distant, and frequently vanishing into troughs...
   "Hello. What's this?"
Unbeknown to the birder, his mind is already on the case, and makes him say:
   "Er....????"
Yes, my mind was remarkably blank for a few seconds. It looked like a creature rather than flotsam, and then, as it heaved into view again, I could see that it had a head, visible to the right of the low, dark mound of its body.
   "Must be a seal, surely?"
My birder's mind had defaulted to the most likely candidate. Very safe, just how I like it.
   "But why is it lying horizontal on the surface like that?"
I can count on the fingers of two hands (maybe even just one) the number of times I have seen a seal in this eastern part of Lyme bay, so they're scarce as it is, but I'm pretty sure I've only ever seen them 'bottling', with their head poking out of the water, body submerged and out of sight.
   "Hmmm. Strange..."
And then my birder's mind was off! It reached deep into the realm of fanciful nonsense, and made me say:
   "Could it be a turtle? Leatherbacks can be big."
It was big, for sure. And something about it didn't look right for a seal...but it was distant, in view only intermittently, and I was being buffetted about by the strong wind. I needed a better look. I quickly walked 20 yards to a big stone and sat down, resting elbows on knees to steady my view...

It had vanished. I looked and looked, but never saw it again. I actually gave it about half an hour. My birder's mind had by now got quite excited about the 'Leatherback Turtle' possibility, and wanted me to put in some proper effort. I figured that if it was a seal I would likely see it again; I wasn't so sure about the chances of seeing a turtle again once it had dived.

So there we are. Clearly you're not getting any 'Leatherback Turtle in Lyme Bay' string from me. But if one is spotted from Portland or something, well, obviously I saw it first.

And if not, well, my birder's mind certainly had quite a bit of fun with me this afternoon...

Friday, 11 October 2019

The 'Local Patch' Thing

Many years ago I drove to my local patch, Staines Res, and found these...

Two Temminck's Stints on the drained South Basin of Staines Res. May 28th, 1985


But what exactly is a local patch?

Because, arguably, Staines Res would not have qualified. The drive there from my home in Northolt took a good 20-25 minutes; more, when the traffic was bad.

So, must your 'local patch' be the nearest bit of birdy habitat to your home? Or must it be within a certain distance? Does it have to be a discrete area confined within a specific boundary? And so on...

I've been pondering all this recently, because I am finding myself drawn to several different local spots and really don't want to be constrained by some arbitrary definition. So, rather than let it bother me I think I shall simply erase the term 'local patch' from my birding vocabulary, and just be content to go birding...

And I have been doing that a bit lately. Going birding I mean. Yesterday morning, for example, I went out early to the cliffs at Burton Bradstock, hoping for some vis-mig. It never got going up to the time I left at about 08:30, though I did have a flock of 18 Ravens fly west, which surprised me. The habitat up there looks full of potential too...

Burton Cliffs, looking west

On Wednesday afternoon I found a few pipits in the fields here, both Meadow and Rock...

Did I really call Rock Pipits 'dead-boring-dull' in my last post? Hmm, rightly so.

And a couple of posts back I wrote about venturing out beyond West Bexington. It takes me nearly 15 minutes to drive to the parking spot in West Bex, so not exactly local local. So anyway, I walked almost to the Abbotsbury beach car park this time. It was blowing a hoolie, but again, virtually no-one about. Look at this...

Fantastic...

There were quite a few small gulls knocking about in a couple of ploughed fields, including at least 6 Meds, and at one point a Merlin hammered through and put them all up. Best views of Merlin I've had for ages.

A relaxed, post-Merlin Med Gull
 
When I stop and think about it, I cannot believe how fortunate I am to live here in coastal West Dorset. It is simply lovely...

For some reason there is a certain cachet that goes with being known as a keen local-patch birder, especially if you find good birds from time to time. Adjectives that sit well in front of 'patch-worker' would include hard-working, conscientious, loyal, tireless, and so on. I'm not sure any of this is justified really. If you enjoy going birding as much as possible, happen to live in a very birdy location, and have the circumstances in life to exploit its potential, well, that's great, but hardly worthy of kudos. Envy, more like...

Monday, 7 October 2019

Red-throated Pipit

Every single year the hackneyed old Scilly vs Shetland debate surfaces online somewhere. Wearily and resignedly, I expect. But let's face it. When all the pros and cons have been weighed, the stats analysed...who actually cares? I would imagine many birders will at some time try both, and wind up gravitating towards whichever they most enjoy. I've been to both (though Shetland only once) and I prefer Scilly. That's not because I feel it is better for rarities. And it's not because I live in the south and feel it wins logistically. In fact it's not for any objective reason whatsoever. It is simply because I love the place. If I could afford the time and money, I would visit every year, several times. And Mrs NQS loves it too; win-win.

One of these days I want to write a post about my first ever visit, in October 1984, when Scilly captured my heart. But that was a full-on birding trip with a bunch of fellow birders, and a bit different to what I want to write about today. Today I am going to share an anecdote from my first family holiday there, in late May, 1985. I had been captivated by the islands the previous autumn, and was eager to introduce them to my wife under less feverish circumstances. A spring week seemed ideal.

The inspiration for this post appeared on Twitter earlier today...


Just look at that stunner...

So there we are on Scilly in May '85. I have just turned 26. We have a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, and Mrs NQS is sporting a 7-month bump. Everywhere we go, we are wheeling a child's buggy and a massive bag full of kid-related paraphernalia - any parent reading this will know the score. Trailing that lot down the local park or high street is one thing, but on our first full day we cart it all onto an inter-island launch, spend an hour or two with the Annet Puffins and then land on St Agnes. Being lunch-time, everyone heads left for the Turk's Head. Being instinctively contrary, we head right, which takes us round past Porth Killier to the Big Pool. I forget the date, but it's something like May 19th, so migrants are few and far between. More precisely, there aren't any at all. But there are Rock Pipits, so I helpfully point out the salient ID features, like the greyish outer tail feathers, and the way the call sounds like the air being forcibly squeezed out of them: 'wheesp'...

Picture the scene, then. A young couple, with toddling child, wheeling a heavily laden (early-'80s!) buggy along the rough footpath past Porth Killier. It's late May. The birding is clearly going to be rubbish. They come to the so-called Little Pool (a marshy puddle) and yet another pipit flies past them. Except this one has white outer tail feathers, not grey, and instead of a feeble 'wheesp' it goes 'spzzzzzzzzzt' for about half a minute without drawing breath, and instead of being dead-boring-dull it is all stripey and contrasty, and has a stonking brick-red throat, face, super, the lot! Aaargh! It's a blinkin' Red-throated Pipit!

In my mind's eye I can see the whole scenario so clearly that it's making me smile as I type this. That Red-throat gave us such a great show. It crept about in the damp grass, it flew around calling, it was constantly on view. And we had it all to ourselves. But of course, we wanted to share this gorgeous jewel, so we scanned around for other birders. It was May. There were none. In the distance by the Big Pool we spotted a bloke wearing bins though, and I hurried over to tell him about the spanking rarity "just over there where my wife is..." "Oooh, that sounds nice," he said, and carried blithely on his way.

I had no idea how to get news out, but remembered from the previous autumn that there was a little shop on the island, so later that afternoon we called in to report it. I sensed mild scepticism. "Hmmm. We were down at the cricket pitch this morning and didn't see anything then..."

A few weeks earlier, David Hunt, the only Scilly resident birder I knew of, had been killed by a tiger in India, so that evening we asked our guest-house proprietor if he knew anyone we could pass the news to. And that was how I became acquainted with Will Wagstaff.

Needless to say, Scilly has a claim on me that surpasses any logical, objective consideration, and always, always wins.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Bins Get an Outing

It's fair to say that my birding has languished in the doldrums for a while now. And so has my blogging of course. And fishing. And...well...everything. It is true that my time and energies this year have been somewhat stretched by our little home's aching need for some love, but in between zealous bouts of DIY there is no reason why I couldn't have made an effort to get out in the field a bit. Well, I'm happy to say that something has blown a bit of air into my sails, though I'm not entirely sure what.

Ironically, I suspect that a recent unsavoury bit of local birding 'hoax' nonsense has played a part. It reminded me that there is actually a good number of honest, reliable birders in East Devon and West Dorset, and they make up a very supportive and collaborative network of observers. I feel quite privileged to know many of them, and occasionally to contribute. Perhaps I ought to try and contribute a bit more often?

Another factor may well be the season. Autumn. Scilly happenings. A Twitter feed full of exciting birdy stuff. I'd have to be dead not to be stirred at least a little bit.

So anyway, this afternoon I thought I'd go exploring...

There is a stretch of coast between West Bexington and Abbotsbury that I discovered while out on a long run earlier this year. It caught my attention for a number of reasons. Firstly, access is poor; there is no convenient car park. Second, the habitat looks great: a long stretch of shingly beach backed by sloping fields and isolated stands of cover. And third, I don't recall ever hearing bird news from this area, so maybe it's not watched that much? I figured I could park up at West Bex, walk along the lane to Labour-in-Vain Farm, then down to the coast and eastwards, then maybe back along the beach. So, at 16:30 I locked the car, pulled on my boots and set to...

Heading down to the sea from Labour-in-Vain Farm
A bit of tamarisk. Looks nice doesn't it? Mind you, must remember it's, er, not quite Scilly.

By this stage I hadn't seen much. About 4 Chiffs and little else. And then I came across a bunch of gulls on the beach...

Two adult Med Gulls in there. Shouldn't be too hard to pick out.

Just inland of here was a large brown field with a tractor working it, breaking up the big lumps into little lumps (I'm sure there's a technical term) and pulling in a fair few more gulls. Although I couldn't find anything decent in the gull collection, I noticed there were lots of alba wagtails scuttling about, so I tried to see if any might be White Wagtails. I find the subtle autumn albas quite a challenge, but there was at least one on view that even I couldn't muck up...

A nice adult White Wagtail. A bit distant and fuzzy.

There may well have been others out there, but I was suddenly distracted by brown things flitting about. Brown birds on brown soil are tricky to see until they move, but I am pretty sure it added up to 2 Wheatears and 3 Whinchats...

Whinchat
Wheatear
This rather faded adult Whinchat kindly perched on a fence momentarily, whereupon I proceeded to muck up the exposure a bit.

Well, that was it bird-wise, but moments later I had a very nice close encounter with a hare. I say 'very nice', but mixed feelings on this really. It's true that I don't come across hares very often locally, but when I do I would rather they be fit and healthy and a bit shy perhaps. This poor fella was nothing of the kind, and more than a bit knackered if you ask me...

I don't think it could see very well; it let me creep quite close. I could see its nostrils working overtime trying to figure out what this stinky creature might be, and whether it was dangerous. If it had been a rabbit I'd have said it was probably infected with myxomatosis, but sadly Google tells me that recent reports suggest the disease may have passed from rabbits to hares in the UK.
A bit of context.

Finally, as the sun set I walked back along the path by the the beach until I came to the West Bexington car park, and then up the road to my car. I think I might do this again...

Walking west, this road soon peters out into a deeply rutted track and then finally vanishes. It's called the Burton Road, apparently. I challenge anyone to drive along it to Burton Bradstock!

Friday, 4 October 2019

My Happy Bird

It's January 1986, and I'm out birding on the western outskirts of the London recording area. To be honest, I'm feeling jaded. 1985 had been a bit full-on, with a serious attempt at a big London year list. I'd managed 193 species. Pleasing enough, but well short of competitor (and, thankfully, friend) Rupert Hastings' new London record of 200. True, there had been some great moments, but also quite a few not-so-great. Plus - being young still - I'd learned some sobering home truths, which is rarely a fun thing. First off, I had really struggled with motivation at times. Very disappointing. Worse still, I had finally realised what a totally selfish divot I was. Married, with a toddler, and a baby newly arrived that July, what on earth was I doing attempting a London year list in 1985?! Completely irresponsible. Mind you, I did forgo a Scilly holiday that October. And of course with hindsight that turned out to be a pretty immense sacrifice! So anyway, as I trudge around Queen Mother Reservoir, my wooly hat pulled low against the freezing wind, my wellies ploughing through fresh snow, I am not really feeling it. Winter on the London reservoirs can be quite exciting on occasion, but today I can barely be bothered to raise my bins. There is a blizzard hammering across the water, and the snow is getting deeper now that I'm on the south bank, where drifts have built in the lee of the concrete wall. Here and there, right next to the wall, tufts of grassy vegetation poke through. Suddenly, out of one of them flies a small bird. It gives a little rattly call, a soft 'chew', and dives back into the next bit of cover. I am shaken out of my gloomy state by a welcome charge of adrenaline. I think I know exactly what is about to happen. Sure enough, a careful approach rewards me with a cracking little Lapland Bunting, gleaning seeds from this small, weedy pocket in the snow...

I spent ages with that Lapland Bunting. I no longer have the notebook, but yes, I made proper notes, a ropey sketch. The bird was still present the following day, and at least one ex-London birder whom I follow on Twitter was among the successful twitchers. As you might imagine, Lapland Bunting was a very rare bird in London, especially in the west.

Over the years I have always had a soft spot for Lapland Bunting, and I very much suspect this has something to do with my happy encounter with one on that bitter winter's day more than 30 years ago, when I was feeling a bit low. That bird cheered me up then, and its descendants can still do so today. So I didn't need much prompting when one turned up at Cogden Beach a couple of weeks back. Mrs long-suffering-NQS and I walked over from Burton Bradstock and were rewarded with a total absence of other birders, and a typically confiding Lap...



In addition, there were quite a few Wheatears, including this strikingly grey-naped individual...



I know this blog has been very quiet in recent times (recent years?) but I'm glad that I still get the urge now and then. To be honest, today's post might easily have been about something very else indeed, and if you are aware of yesterday's Mugimaki Flycatcher scare you will get my drift. But in all honesty I found the whole sorry saga just desperately sad, and in many ways feel it's better left alone to fizzle out like the shrivelled balloon that it is...