Saturday, 30 November 2019

Inland

This morning was the first time in a while that seawatching has felt a reasonable (as opposed to perverse) option. The forecast ESE wind made me get up early and head for East Bexington. It was worth it. By 09:35 I'd tallied 23 Common Scoter, 19 Brents, 4 Teal, 2 Wigeon, 1 Goldeneye (Lyme Bay seawatch quality!), 2 Great Northern Divers, a Red-throated, 2 Kittiwakes, 1 Fulmar and 1 Dunlin. By the time I packed up, Gannets and auks were moving in the sort of numbers which almost made me wish I'd been counting them too. Almost. Apart from a few Scoter, everything went east. Quite a few gulls were passing close in as well, including several Lesser Black-backed. All-in-all a fair bit of action, and I went home pleased I'd bothered.

Earlier this week I dropped into Lyme Regis for a change, and had a very quick look at Monmouth Beach. For some reason I've only been birding there on a couple of occasions, which is a bit poor considering how attractive it can be for birds. The first time was a twitch back in September 2008...

Yes, Monmouth Beach has had some classy birds. Juv Sabine's Gull.
I wasn't the only birder sitting in the soggy wrack. That Sabine's was one obliging bird.

It's good for Grey Phalaropes here too, and there was indeed one offshore that day. Nothing quite as spectacular on my brief on-spec visit in the week, but I was dead pleased to have a Black Redstart pop up in front of me. It allowed just a couple of quick photos before vanishing like they do...

I know that sexing the brown ones is a bit iffy, but surely that bright wing flash means it's a young male?

So, on to the subject of this post. Inland. If you drive the main A35 east from my home to Dorchester you climb out of Bridport to some high ground, and lying to the north is a broad expanse of farmland. The area is a favourite for me and my bike, and cycling the lanes there has given me lots of Yellowhammers, a handful of singing Corn Buntings, and a Merlin once. Birding it properly has been on my to-do list for ages. But you know how it is... Anyway, back in October a friend showed me a photo her farmer husband had taken up there. "It's a very wet owl", she said, passing her phone. Expecting a Barn Owl, or maybe a Tawny, I was surprised to see it was actually a rather bedraggled Short-eared Owl, perched up in pouring rain. "On your land?" I asked. The affirmative reply encouraged me to revisit my to-do list. But you know how it is...

Anyway, this week I finally decided to stop being so bloomin' idle, and drove up there for a good poke around. I had about two hours to spare, and just pootled about, stopping and scanning from any likely-looking spot. It was hard work finding birds, but not without reward. One field held some Lapwings plus an attendant flock of 17 Golden Plover. I found at least 100+ Skylarks, and a decent mixed bunting flock - lots of Yellowhammers and 20+ Corn Buntings. There were also good numbers of Stock Doves and loads of winter thrushes. It's a very long time since I've tried birding farmland, and I'd forgotten that birds can often be concentrated into small areas - they certainly are not evenly spread. A massive flock of Linnets erupted out of one field I looked in, and they were the only Linnets I saw. Another, very large field held two 4WD trucks bearing cargos of khaki-clad shooters. No wonder the Red-legged Partridges were looking jittery.

The highlight was seeing all those Corn Buntings so close to home. One of my better 'quality' Beer Head finds was a Corn Bunting, a species so scarce in Devon that it provoked a modest county twitch when it stuck around. So having them just down the road now is a real pleasure. I shall try not to neglect my local inland countryside quite so much in future...

Corn Bunting near Eggardon Hill. Hardly eye-candy, but nevertheless very nice to see.
Fieldfare. They don't let you get anywhere near them, do they?!

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Birding in Monochrome

I had some work in Seaton today. However, the frequent showers (and ponderously-consumed packed lunch) meant I spent ages by the estuary, looking at...

Yes, the post title says it all. Though 'monochrome' is a poetic licence of course, because you also get little bits of pink, red, yellow and other dazzling colours on gulls. And every shade of brown.

A strong SSW was blowing up the river, and there seemed to be a steady turnover, birds not hanging about for long. A couple of Med Gulls from lunchtime...

Apart from a bit of cropping and sharpening, the photo is unaltered. This 2nd-winter Med Gull was approx 100m away, straight across the river (ISO 400, 1/400 sec, f6.5). I reckon this camera is going to do justice to any Caspian Gull generous enough to present itself in similar fashion.
And an adult Med Gull, a teeny bit further away.
The adult again, having flown to Coronation corner and joined some drossy mates

While playing with the Meds I noticed a large gull with a super-sharp, black tail-band fly past. It landed well down-river and made me get the scope out. I thought it was probably a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull, and hurried along the road with my scope and camera. When I arrived, it wasn't there. Annoyingly I hadn't noticed it fly off. However, a bit later, while scoping the gulls above Coronation Corner, I spotted what was surely the same bird. A bit distant for decent photos, and far too face-on for my liking, but here's the best of what I got...

It's the bird at the back. Notice the darker shade of grey on the upperparts compared with argenteus Herring Gulls to the right. So, is it a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull, or just a mucky hybrid creation? I would like to have seen it much better, but I'm pretty happy it's the real thing.
As I said, far too face-on, but nothing I can see in this open-wing shot puts me off YLG. I'm pretty sure a finely-streaked crown is okay, and you get a hint of that black tail-band as well. Not the butchest YLG I've ever seen though.

After this entertaining bit of gulling I was fired up sufficiently to want to go and look for Water Pipits in the big field opposite Colyton Water Treatment Works. Due to flooding I parked up well short, donned wellies and walked. Arriving at said field, the heavens opened and I nearly drowned. I shall look for Water Pipits another time.

I've said this before, but I'll say it again: gulls are wonderful. Seriously, if you're not keen, consider this...

A few weeks ago I posted a little video on Twitter. Literally thousands of gulls feasting on whitebait along Chesil Beach. Hundreds of Med Gulls among them. I was in the same place on Saturday. Empty. Hardly any gulls at all. So, where are they all? I don't know. And that's the point. I cannot think of more mobile birds than gulls. They are opportunistic wanderers. Sure, some individuals seem very site-faithful, but basically almost any gull can turn up anywhere. Weather systems move them. Food supplies move them. A zillion other random urges move them. Which means...

A rare gull can turn up just about anywhere that other gulls do. And there are a lot of rare gulls.

And all you've got to do to find that rare one is carefully sift through acres of dross first. Day after day. Week in, week out. That's all.

Inspired?

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Road Less Travelled

Around 1970 or '71 my paternal grandparents retired to Norfolk, buying a bungalow in Temple Drive, Weybourne. I have many happy memories of holidays there as a young lad. Although I didn't know much about birds, and had no-one to teach me, I was certainly interested. My first Nightjar was a bird flushed in the daytime while exploring Muckleburgh Hill. I must have been about 13 or 14. My sister and I followed it down onto Weybourne Camp, and eventually worked out what it was. Occasionally I was dropped off at Morston Quay to catch the boat out to Blakeney Point, and I'd spend the rest of the day ambling back along the coast to Cley or Salthouse, slowly being bent double by my ex-army 7x50s. Although I mostly didn't know what I was looking at, one thing I did know: North Norfolk was brilliant for birds. So when I got really keen soon after marriage, it was obvious where the new Mrs NQS and I needed to go.

Our burgeoning list soon included many gems from those early trips to the Cley area: Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Black Guillemot, Dotterel, Spotted Crake, Red-backed Shrike and so on. We quickly broadened our horizons to include Minsmere, Walberswick, Sheppey, Portland etc, adding more and more new birds. Then twitching became a thing, and I was off all over the country. Then there was Scilly...

I would imagine that many new birders begin in similar fashion. Lots of visits to well-known birdy Meccas, a bit of twitching here and there. Hopefully there will be some local birding too, but most likely that too will be to popular spots. And quite possibly many birders are happy to continue in this vein until they drop! Well, the purpose of this post is to suggest an alternative direction. Maybe not straight away, but when you have a little confidence in your own abilities. That alternative? The road less travelled...

What does that mean? It means going where other birders don't. Okay, but why bother? I'll answer that shortly.

First, let's talk about what it means. To illustrate, I'd like to relate some of my own experiences in this area. As a very part-time birder, this is going to be somewhat low-key, but you'll get the idea...

When I first moved to Seaton as a lapsed birder, I had never heard of the Axe Estuary. I knew Portland to the east, and Dawlish Warren to the west, but nowhere in between. Yet there is rather a lot of south coast between Portland and Dawlish! Of course, some of it is actually quite well covered. But not all. And so it was in the Seaton area. There were indeed a handful of keen birders watching the Axe Estuary and adjacent marshes back in the early noughties, but nearby Beer Head, a couple of miles to the west, was virtually untouched. I made a few exploratory visits in the late autumn of 2004 and saw Firecrest and Ring Ouzel, which was enough to make me earmark it for proper effort the following year. I loved it. I basically had Beer Head to myself initially, and though the rewards were modest at first, there was almost always something to make a visit worthwhile. A few Wheatears, common migrant warblers, the odd Redstart. It genuinely felt - in a small way - like pioneering. A twitchable Dotterel was the watershed bird I think. After that I often had company. Beer Head has since been quite well-birded, with 2 Ortolans, Iberian Chiffchaff, Great Spotted Cuckoo, multiple Wrynecks, Red-backed Shrike and many other goodies to its credit. But those early days were special. That feeling of doing something a little bit different gave me a taste for it.

Unfortunately I don't have any photos from 2004 or '05 (pre-digital for me) so here are a few later ones...

Typical Beer Head fare - a nice autumn Wheatear
Wheatear again
Less typical! Wryneck
X marks the spot. Wryneck woz 'ere.
2009. Another X. Another spot. Can't bring myself to torture certain birdy friends with any more than that...

I realise that living on the coast puts me in the fortunate position of having excellent birding right on my doorstep, but I would think that most birders could nevertheless apply the principle from this. Look at a map, pick somewhere that you think might have potential, and where nobody goes, and try it. Not just once. Give it a fair crack. Perhaps you're used to going to that regular hotspot for your autumn jollies, where a Yellow-Browed Warbler or Ring Ouzel is pretty much guaranteed - you know, the same birds that everyone else sees. Well, why not try somewhere completely new? Maybe you'll find your own YBW or Ouzel. Or maybe you won't. Or maybe you'll find something even better! For me, there is simply nothing to beat the buzz to be had from doing that, and then being rewarded with a surprisingly good bird. It happens.

If you want a good example of what can be achieved, take a look at Matt Knott's blog birdingexmouth, where you will see his results from regularly working Orcombe Point and nearby farmland. It's not a reserve, there are no hides or boardwalks. No, it's just a bit of the south coast. One of many, many bits. But Matt's list of finds is simply amazing.

So, whether you're a grafter, like Matt Knott, or a part-timer like me, I will guarantee this...

If you try the road less travelled, you will find good birds, and you will have fun. And you will grow as a birder.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Dodgy Birders - Appendix A: A Dodgy Birder Responds

Whenever I publish something on NQS I am confident that at least some other people will read it. Quite often I get a comment or two, which is always pleasing, and sometimes a bit of reaction on Twitter, where I usually advertise the birth of a new post. This morning I got a lot more than that. In part 5 of the Dodgy Birders series you will have met Alan Vittery, a man evidently labelled a 'Dodgy Birder' by the BBRC. Well, imagine my surprise when Alan got in touch. I hope he won't mind me snipping out this quote from his email:

'I have written the occasional piece in 'Birdwatch' about single observer records but have never gone to any lengths to defend myself... Your analysis of the dodgy birder phenomenon has encouraged me to state my case in some detail, which I attach.'

I sincerely hope you will find what follows as fascinating a read as I have. It is entirely unedited. Please pour yourself a beer or whatever is your poison, and enjoy...

If you haven't already done this, or similar, please pause right now, and rectify...


‘DODGY’ BIRDER’S RESPONSE   Alan Vittery, November 2019 

As I discovered to my cost, it is quite easy to get on the wrong side of Records Committees. My troubles started with Mike Rodgers who seemed to be suspicious of the reason I stayed on Tresco when I visited Scilly, or was it just jealousy that I was finding more than him on St Mary’s? The real reason was that I was a friend of David Hunt and had stayed in his cottages in Hugh Town until his unfortunate demise. I then tried Tresco (much preferred by my wife, Bonnie) and found it offered great sea-watching as well as the Great Pool and peace and quiet before the boats arrived!

Things came to a head when, after an ‘Iberian’ weather system, I saw a rock-solid, elegant, long-tailed, intermediate phase Eleonora’s fly south past the Great Pool and cross ‘The Road’ to St Mary’s. It was a bird I knew well from Turkey and Greece, and I had even found the first for mainland southern Africa after a cyclone between Madagascar and Mozambique (accepted without question!). I phoned St Mary’s to let them know and eventually got a message from Mike that “two young Cornish lads had reported an unusually dark Hobby, so there was no point in me submitting the Eleonora’s”. Any objective assessor would have concluded that the ‘dark Hobby’ sighting by inexperienced observers actually corroborated my id. I have seen hundreds of Hobbys and have never encountered, or even heard of, a dark individual. Mike knew of my raptor credentials but looked for any excuse to reject my records. The fact that I had several good finds to my credit on Tresco, all duly twitched, (Common Nighthawk, Woodchat Shrike and Britain’s third Sardinian Warbler to name but three), seemed to count for nothing. 

When I moved to Sutherland as a full-time birder (having been medically retired at 47) I immediately encountered the same problem with the Scottish Committee. I quickly discovered that the Moray Firth was a huge seabird trap. Hundreds of hours of observation from Brora (and Strathy Point in the Pentland Firth) produced numerous records of species then considered rare in Scotland, including multiple Balearic Shearwaters. I got the most ridiculous responses from Ron Forrester (who had obviously never done a serious sea-watch in his life), such as “BWP measurements show Balearic could not look larger than Manx” and “a Sooty with a pale belly had been reported off New Zealand”. After a well seen and described male Rough-legged Buzzard was rejected solely on the grounds that “males are very rare in Britain” (which of course I knew), I resigned as Recorder for Sutherland in disgust. 

I later learned that the BBRC and the SBRC would no longer even assess my records so, when I saw a ‘looping’ Fea’s Petrel fly past Brora, close in, it was excluded from the official record even though the same bird had passed Fife Ness and was later seen off North Ronaldsay! ‘Cutting off their nose to spite my face’ springs to mind. I would not claim any record about which I had any doubt about the id, so have been forced to publish my own “unverified” sightings, which are now criticised (e.g BB review of ‘Sutherland Birdlife’ (2018) by the current Highland Recorder) for being outside the verification process. Tough; it was their choice! Let posterity decide, as I’m sure many of my sightings are indicators of trends in this rapidly changing climate and researchers should at least have access to them to judge their merits in the context of future developments. 

So, I probably represent the classic case of ‘someone who sees too much’. There are several factors that need to be taken into consideration, generally ignored by Committees. First, I do enjoy exceptionally good eyesight, further trained from taking up bird-watching at a very early age. My ability to pick up birds with the naked eye when others were struggling with binoculars was legendary in the Teesmouth Bird Club. More recently, friends in Sutherland could also testify to my visual acuity. 

The maxim ‘time + effort in = reward out’ also holds true. I calculate I have spent just over 100,000 hours actively birding in the field since first acquiring binoculars aged 8! To that I am still adding almost 2000 hours per annum. 

Before the days of cheap air travel, overseas experience was of course a major advantage. Although holiday trips do offer valuable experience of birds which could occur in Britain, there is no substitute for living in a country and getting to know the birds intimately. My three years in Turkey and two winter/springs in Greece were particularly valuable in a European context and a boon to a raptor-starved Englishman. In Pakistan I encountered some of the eastern species now occurring in western Europe with greater frequency (such as Blyth’s Reed Warbler wintering in my garden) and in Africa (Gambia, Ethiopia and Mozambique) I saw many interesting Palearctic migrants in, or on their way to and from, their winter quarters. 

The chances of finding good birds are greatly enhanced by other factors. A knowledge of the likely consequences of weather systems, both local and distant, is one. Before ’Google’, I used the shipping forecast to determine where to spend the next day’s birding. At migration times, I kept the daily meteorological charts from the newspaper to assess the causes of any sightings in retrospect, so I could be alert to possibilities when a similar system occurred in future. Some of these charts are reproduced in my book on the Birds of Sutherland (1997). One September in Norfolk, I amazed some fellow birders in Cley by accurately predicting the different source of arrivals on successive days. A classic North Sea system, which duly produced Redstarts, Pied Fly’s, Lesser Whitethroats and Dunnocks from Scandinavia had moved well to the south, so I then anticipated birds from the Balkans. Sure enough, on Blakeney Point the next day, there were Red-breasted Flycatchers, Red-backed Shrike and a juvenile Black-headed Bunting. 

In Sutherland, with its three coasts, I was able to take full advantage of favourable weather conditions in any part of the county. Given the number of rare migrants reaching the Northern Isles it seems obvious Sutherland must get its fair share; they are just more difficult to find on the mainland. I was fortunate to live on a major NE/SW flight-line in the Clynelish valley, Brora which produced many interesting transients (including the celebrated White’s Thrush in 1991), eighteen species of diurnal raptor and some great garden birds, such as Booted, Icterine and Pallas’s Warbler, Wryneck & Red-backed Shrike. I discovered it paid to be alert in the days following major ‘falls’ on the Northern Isles as even some night migrants ‘filtered’ south through my valley. In the extreme north-west, the Durness area is like a Northern Isle cut off not by sea but by its hostile mountainous hinterland. It is now more regularly watched, partly as a result of my finds there, like Daurian Starling and Woodchat Shrike. 

Needing a warmer climate for health reasons, from 2009 – 16 I pioneered the virtually unknown island of Santa Maria in the Azores. When Dominic Mitchell visited, he asked me why I had chosen Santa Maria. The clear inference was that my doubters suspected I wanted to be somewhere where my finds could not be verified. In fact I would have chosen Flores in the extreme west of the archipelago but my wife suffered from arthritis and Santa Maria was reputed to be the warmest and driest island. It was also geologically stable, being more than twenty times older than any of the other islands. I was beginning to regret the choice when I saw only 29 species in a week on an April recce, but it proved to be amazing, attracting birds from Europe, the deserts of North Africa and (mainly) North America. 

A consequence of Santa Maria’s age (over 6 million years) was that it was worn down and had developed habitats absent on the younger islands, such as a large plain. I found that species regarded as very rare in the Azores (like Lesser Kestrel, Pacific Golden Plover, Dotterel, Skylark and Redwing) were regular visitors to Santa Maria, which raised eyebrows again until others came across to see them for themselves. Finding breeding Killdeers finally put SM firmly on the ornithological map. Even this was outshone by the discovery of a relict population of Small Button-Quails, but how could I ‘prove’ a species which has never been photo’d in the wild? I tried recording the advertising call of the female at night but was defeated by the sounds of frogs, dogs and insects. My many other finds there, such as the Wilson’s Snipe which regularly overwintered in double figures, are detailed in ‘The Birds of Santa Maria, Azores’, available free from me to anyone intending to visit the island (e-mail: avalgarve@gmail.com). 

I now live in the Algarve just 20 km from the SW tip of Europe (Cape St Vincent) and again find myself on a major flight-line used by both raptors and passerines. In onshore winds the sea-watching on the nearby coast can be sensational, particularly in spring/early summer, but no-one else seems to sea-watch here, relying entirely on offshore pelagics. On 14 Feb this year, for example, an immature Wandering (presumably Tristan) Albatross flew west, well out, dwarfing the Gannets at the same range. Although this is one species already on the Portuguese list (an immature seen from a British warship 50 km off Cape St Vincent), it is seriously impoverished. Glaring omissions include desert birds from North Africa given its proximity and the fact that the Algarve is a frequent recipient of sand and insect-laden south-easterly winds. I have already seen several such species in my three years here, which is hardly surprising as they regularly reached Santa Maria, almost 1000 km more distant, after Saharan storms. 

Given the number of British rarities I have found, it may come as a surprise to learn these are principally the by-products of regular patch work (although one patch was Blakeney Point!) and long periods of observation watching large movements of commoner species. I am never happier than when witnessing a coastal passage of ‘Poms’ or Little Auks in autumn/winter gales. I also recall an April trek onto Blakeney Point with Tony Marr when, on quite a bird-rich day, he was puzzled by my preoccupation with counting the many Pied Wagtails (well over a hundred) arriving from the east, which far exceeded any of my previous counts. 

I do not claim infallibility and have inevitably made a few mistakes in 68 years of bird-watching. Unlike some, I have been prepared to admit these publicly. In compensation I have also corrected misidentifications made by others. In strict scientific terms the value of ‘unproven’ individual records is, I accept, very limited but when in total they contribute to a better understanding of the changes now taking place on a global scale they arguably assume greater significance. I am not a twitcher or lister (apart from a ‘fun’ World houses list, which has just topped 600), so what would be the point of lying to myself? 

I feel I have made significant pioneering contributions in a number of little known areas overseas and in Sutherland. In ‘The Birds of Greece’ I received the first foreign acknowledgement for my studies of the birdlife of the Ionian islands of Kefallinia and Paxos. Competitiveness, jealousy and personal prejudice leading to suspicion and character assassination and, ultimately, the unnecessary impoverishment of the official record should have no place in ornithology.
__________________________________

That account, and its covering email, is by far the most touching response I have ever had to a blog post. It was 38 years ago that Alan Vittery came striding up the track at Kelling where Mrs NQS and I were so hopelessly stuck, and rescued us. Providing this modest platform for Alan to make his case is the least I can do to say 'thank you', and I hope readers find it as thought-provoking as I do. Alan is now 76 compared to my 60. We have met just twice in person, and corresponded this once. Our lives and current circumstances are very different, yet we are both still birders. And if nothing else, for me the very existence of this post validates the point I made at the close of part 5. Birders are just people, and birding is not life...

And isn't life rather enchanting on occasion?!

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Just a Walk...

A long walk is my therapy. Cycling can do the trick also, but rarely ends with a Starling roost, which was this afternoon's plan. I parked at Hive Beach in Burton Bradstock, and walked to the West Bexington Mere and back. Slowly. This was to be an easy plod, involving regular lifting of bins and pointing of camera. And it worked a treat. I am now s-o-o-o chi-i-i-i-i-lled...

There was evidently a fishing match in progress, with many anglers at Cogden, and in the distance, all the way from the West Bex Mere to the Abbotsbury tank teeth and beyond...

Looking down from the high ground at Cogden. That's the West Bex Mere just visible on the left, with the car park just beyond, and the Swannery end of the Fleet top left.

One of my intentions this afternoon was to try out the camera on very distant birds that were a struggle to identify with just binoculars. My hope was that it will partially compensate for leaving the scope at home on some outings. And I think it will. Here's an example...

Corn Bunting. A pretty appalling photo, I know, but through bins it was a 'possible' or, at a stretch, 'probable.' No way would I have called it 100% without the camera though.

This is only my second coastal Corn Bunting locally, after a May bird in almost the same place. Definitely a highlight of this afternoon's walk. Another highlight was a little group of 4 Ringed Plovers on the beach. Before they were flushed by a couple and their dog, I managed a handful of photos...

Ringed Plover, Cogden Beach. This is my favourite shot. Context. Atmosphere. Weird 3D-ness.

Offshore were a few divers. A couple were very much at the threshold of binocular identification, so again I used the opportunity to try out the camera on them. None of the shots are really worth posting on here alone, so I've made a little collage of them for educational purposes.

Quiz question: Without checking the caption first, how many are Black-throated, how many are Red-throated?


Yes, trick question. Sorry. Correct answer: they are all Red-throated Divers. But isn't it interesting how variable they are, depending on their age, plumage state, posture, the light, etc? Black-throated Diver is very scarce along this coast, but some Red-throats are definitely a trap for the unwary. Incidentally, the bottom two photos show the same pair of birds; the top three are all different.

The West Bexington Mere was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping for lots of gulls, but not many were present. Some of them were Med Gulls though, which was nice. After the seething mass of gulls that was around a few weeks ago, things are back to normal now, and Med Gulls are going up in value again. I'm glad.

I had another look at the anglers...

Actually, I took this photo ages before I got to the West Bex Mere. That yellow bivvy is level with it. Look at them all!

I got back to Cogden in plenty of time for the Starling roost in the reedbed there. While waiting it was nice to be entertained by Water Rails squealing and Cetti's Warblers bellowing. The Starling thing is wonderful. They arrive in flocks of various sizes - maybe 30 birds or a thousand - and quickly coalesce into a wheeling, swirling mass that wafts around the sky, initially quite wide-ranging, then increasingly focused. Finally, like feathered water funneling down an aerial plug-hole, they plunge into the reeds. If you are close enough it is quite noisy, the whoosh of their wings and constant squawking cackle a real treat. Involuntary smiling is par for the course I think.

I had a stab at counting. To do this I licked a finger, stuck it in the air and thought of a number. Twenty thousand plus is what I came up with. Photographs simply do not do justice to the spectacle. Even so, here is one...

Cogden Starling roost. Many of them are out of shot to the left.

I shall definitely go again. I noticed at least a dozen or so other spectators scattered around. I'm not surprised. I highly recommend it.

Before it all started, I found a lone Starling...

"Come back later pal, my mates are coming over"

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Straying...

I think I need to draw a line under this year's Little Auk quest. I lasted about 15 minutes this morning before screaming boredom got me. A Fulmar - my first for a while - was the only bird of note. Correction: the only bird. I wondered if a quick circuit involving the Burton cliffs might produce some vis mig for me. Not really...

Four visibly-migrating Mute Swans

Late morning I executed a massive skive and headed for the Abbotsbury Beach car park. It has come to my attention that Abbotsbury Swannery is hosting at least 3 (and possibly 5) Scaup. My sources (Twitter) tell me that they are all first-year birds (the dullest version possible) but I have not seen any Scaup - dull or otherwise - since we moved to this part of the world 17 years ago, and I would quite like to. My plan was to walk E from the car park along the shingle ridge of Chesil Beach, and see what I could see from the so-called 'tank teeth', the point beyond which access is restricted. It's not something I've tried before and I'm not sure what I was expecting really. A modest expanse of water maybe? A few ducks to sort through? Shouldn't be too tricky, I thought...

Overlooking Abbotsbury Swannery from Chesil Beach. This is the western end of the Fleet, which stretches away several miles E to Ferrybridge. Tank teeth in the foreground.
Zooming in a bit. The Swannery gets its name from the white blobs. Notice also, many, many dark blobs. Smaller. Much smaller.
Oh, really? Come o-o-o-o-o-on! And that's just a fraction of them. Another million were curled up asleep on the shore

Umpteen years of the Axe have conditioned me to believe that Pochard and Tufties only come in ones and twos these days. So this was a rude jolt of reality. You know that aythya ducks are all identical, right? It reminded me of the hellish autumn of 1986. The south basin of Staines Res was drained in 1985 and loads of vegetation had grown while it was empty. I assume it was this that attracted hordes of diving ducks when the basin was refilled the following year. A monstrous raft of evil aythya ducks is like a living nightmare. On the upside, the gathering did include 2 proper Ferruginous Ducks (not shiny Tupperware males) but finding them was fiendishly hard. Needless to say, I couldn't pick out any Scaup today. However, I did spot one of these...

Drake Pintail. Not close, but even I can pick out a drake Pintail.  I think I could make out another, way off in the distance, but it was asleep and therefore quite likely to have been almost anything.

Best of all was a Great White Egret. Initially picked up flying W, quite close, it changed its mind and came back, dropping into the edge of the reeds not too far away...

Flight shot! Kind of...
Shortly after landing.
Classic pose.

I haven't seen a local Great White Egret for years, and was well chuffed with this performance. I posted a photo on Twitter, which prompted a couple of local birders to list some of the good birds they've seen from this little corner of the Chesil that I had just investigated for the first time today. Not the Swannery itself, just the path from the car park to the tank teeth, plus birds on/over the sea here. This is the list: Hoopoe, Purple Heron, Snow and Lapland Bunting, Aquatic Warbler, several Dartford Warblers, Forster's Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Little Auk, Dusky Warbler, Purple Sandpiper, Long-eared Owl, Sabine's Gull, Cory's and Sooty Shearwaters...

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? As you can imagine, yet another venue has now been added to my 'Must Try and Check Regularly' list.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 5: What to Do About Them

This is my third attempt at writing this post. It's strange really, because the title question is very easy for me to answer. You want to know what to do about Dodgy Birders?

Answer: whatever you feel is appropriate.

Simple as that. If you encounter a Dodgy Birder some day - and you will - the decision about how to handle it is obviously going to be yours. And who am I to presumptuously suggest you ought to do this or that? But as you might have noticed in part 4, I have wrestled with this question myself and struggled to decide what is 'appropriate'. So in this concluding post I simply want to offer some of my thought process for your consideration.

We live in a 'name and shame' culture these days, and on social media we regularly see it in birding too. The twitchers in the Forbidden Field, the flushers caught mid-boot, the photographers too close or blundering where they ought not. Naming and shaming might appeal to our baser instincts, but is it right? And is it an appropriate way to deal with Dodgy Birders? Well, you decide. Personally I've come to the conclusion that I don't like it, and I could make a strong case against it on moral grounds, but that's not for this post.

But there is another way, and to illustrate it I would like to tell you about Alan Vittery...

If you visit the Wikipedia page on the British Birds Rarities Committee you will find Alan Vittery referenced several times. Here's an example:

'One of the observers who Wallace claimed was blacklisted, Alan Vittery, also contributed to the debate, stating that he had been informed by the BBRC that they would not consider any single-observer record he submitted, unless supported by a photograph.' 

It's pretty obvious from this and other references, that the BBRC had judged Alan Vittery a Dodgy Birder. And reading between the lines, probably a birder who sees too much.

As far as I can discover, Alan Vittery now lives in the Azores, but for some years he was resident in a remote part of Scotland. In 1997 his book The Birds of Sutherland was published. He is in fact responsible for a good deal of serious ornithological writing going back several decades. And not just about birds within our shores; his output includes much on birds in the Middle East too, for example. Could it be that Alan Vittery is simply the archetypal red-hot birder? Perhaps. I don't know. However, I do know that I met him on Scilly in September 1987...

It was on Tresco, and he told Mrs NQS and me he'd recently seen a Citrine Wagtail and Spotted Sandpiper by the Great Pool, and suggested where we might try for them. Neither is an easy bird to identify, but having no reason to be suspicious we duly went and had a look. Although we never found the wagtail we did see the sandpiper. It was quite elusive, but eventually we had excellent views and as it was only my second or third Spot Sand I took quite a lot of notes. Later, to my surprise, I was asked if I'd kindly submit a description of the bird because...er...well...Alan Vittery...you know...

Well, I didn't know, but the nudging and winking made it plain. He wasn't trusted. Anyway, in the BBRC report for rare birds in 1987 you can find this entry...

I don't know whether AV submitted a description, but know from my own experience that for your name to appear in a BB Rarities Report you don't necessarily need to have submitted one, or, as in my case here, to have actually found a rare bird.


However, I want to go back to the Wikipedia reference. And here's the point. I don't know exactly when it was done, but at some stage the BBRC grasped the nettle and actually told Alan Vittery they thought he was dodgy. Maybe not in so many words, but nevertheless the message was evidently clear.

You can argue the rights and wrongs, and while I am only surmising here, I would guess the BBRC was concerned for the integrity of its records, and AV most likely felt hard done by. But if you (or a body you are part of) has similar concerns about your patch, county or regional records, isn't this the proper way to handle things? Be straight with the person?

In my experience the worst Dodgy Birders tend not to submit records. Perfect! And as mentioned in part 3, if they're truly awful they effectively excuse themselves from the birding community anyway. But if they're kind of bad but not that bad, but still they keep telling you about stuff that never gets seen by you or anyone else, then what? I dunno. I'm afraid you'll have to decide.

Anyway, before I leave this firmly in your court, here's a final thought...

In late December 1981, Mrs NQS and I were in North Norfolk on our first proper birding holiday. One afternoon I stupidly drove down a remote track and got us stuck fast in muddy ruts. We were in the middle of nowhere, and more than an hour later we were still there. By now I was sweaty, exhausted, and a bit panicky. The daylight was slipping away rapidly and we were still buried up to the axles. Unbeknown to us, a birder walking the distant shingle ridge by the sea had spotted us in trouble, and came striding up the track to offer assistance. It turned out he'd lived abroad, was familiar with this kind of predicament, and knew exactly what to do. Looking back, basically he rescued us. I was an impetuous 22 year-old. This guy was in his 30s I would say, perhaps the age our sons are now. Before we parted ways he introduced himself. His name was Alan Vittery.

I guess he must be 70-something now, and no doubt blissfully unaware of how deeply grateful for his unsolicited help we were that day. And I still am. Dodgy Birder he may be in the eyes of some, but the name Alan Vittery means something very different to me.

My point is this. Birding is a hobby. It is not life. Birders are just people, with all the potential complexities that fact implies. I don't know why some birders are dodgy. I don't claim to understand what drives them, how they are wired. It's a total mystery to me, if I'm honest. But outside of my hobby - and their hobby - they have a life, same as I do. I hope I've learned enough in 60 years to remember that, and treat them appropriately.


Sunday, 10 November 2019

Local Gleanings

This post is probably going to read like a very dull diary entry...

Saturday
Chucked it down all morning. Vile. Stayed in bed.
Afternoon. East Bex. Struggled. Met Alan B at West/East border checkpoint.

Sunday
Morning. Questing. No prizes.
Afternoon. West Bay and Eype. Struggled.

I really couldn't face a morning seawatch yesterday, especially with rain forecast so early. A lie-in then? Coffee? Toast? Okay.

One might question the wisdom of regular, short, morning seawatches carried out even when conditions look totally rubbish. And I do. Often. But I'll press on for a while and see what happens. This morning was a slow 40 minutes, but 4 Common Scoters came by, and 3 Red-throated Divers. Two of those divers were close, which was nice. A few distant Big Auks.

Afternoon birding yesterday at East Bexington, a gentle stroll from the Abbotsbury Beach car park to the West Bex coastguards cottages and back. Freezing. The chilly NW was blowing straight along the coast, and now that I'm nearly old and definitely a bit ragged at the edges, I feel the cold more than I used to. Never mind, out on the fields there were a few gulls to warm me up. None of them was exciting per se, but a Med Gull and a Great Black-backed wore colour-rings. Excellent! I haven't had a go at this game for ages, and I'd forgotten what a great way it is to turn a dull day into something really...well...less dull. Let's do this! The Med Gull promptly flew away before I could get anything at all, and the GBB marched about rapidly for ten minutes, pausing only when the ringed leg was in a dip, behind a stone, or in some other way hidden. Eventually I got it - S89, white on dark green, left leg. I get home, go on the Euring website, look up the GBBG projects that use 3-digit alpha-numerics on green rings and...there aren't any. Strewth! So either I misread it, misidentified it, am now colour blind, or there's a rogue ringer out there dishing out disappointment in little plastic doses.

The afternoon's highlight was bumping into Alan Barrett, one of the West Bex patchers, at the coastguard cottages. He confirmed that East Bex is very underwatched, and told me about some goodies that a birder who used to live there had found in the past, like Cirl Bunting, Lapland Bunting, adult Long-tailed Skua on the beach. That'll do.

I've taken to actually bothering with a scope at East Bex, because there are big fields with tiny, tiny birds in, miles away, and a scope helps a lot. I used it quite a bit, but all the tiny birds were common ones. There was one other highlight...

A buck Roe Deer, idling in the sunshine

The deer too was tiny and miles away, but my new camera did a good job of making it bigger. A post about the camera is on my to-do list.

Finally, this afternoon. A walk from West Bay to Eype and back. I worked out a circuit that would include some new ground for me, and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, bird-wise it was a pretty unexciting two hours for the most part. Up to 5 Firecrests have been reported at Eype just recently, and I was hopeful of scoring at a spot I've seen one previously, a birdy little gully that runs down to the sea. If it was in Penwith it would host Red-eyed Vireos (or better) every autumn. But it's not. I'd have been happy with just one Firecrest though. Evidently my happiness was not a matter of concern to the birds of Eype. Anyway, I'd nearly got back to the car, and was on the phone to Mrs NQS, organising the placement of slippers and size of whisky, when a blue flash whizzed past me along the river. A cracking little Kingfisher perched on a bankside twig, dived in, caught a miniscule fish, gave it a good shake and swallowed it. I've seen very few local Kingfishers. Result!

It's the small things...

Friday, 8 November 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 4: Seeing Too Much

Today we're going to examine the interesting phenomenon of birders who 'see too much'. This is a tricky one, with many nuances, as we shall see. To illustrate, consider this imaginary scenario...

It's late August and you are visiting a popular coastal reserve. As you are about to enter a hide the door opens and out steps a birder.
"Much about?" you ask.
"Couple of Curlew Sands and a Spotted Redshank earlier, but not seen them for a while," he says.
"Nice. Thanks."
Half an hour later you have tallied many Dunlin and juvenile Redshanks, and are wondering if you've just been unlucky, or if the guy is maybe a bit rubbish at waders.
Later, working an extensive scrubby area, you meet him again. He generously shares the fact that he's had four Redstarts, that there's a Pied Flycatcher just around the corner and, best of all, a Wryneck in the clearing. Naturally your step quickens excitedly. Half an hour later your tally is one Redstart, and you are really not quite sure what to make of this bloke.
In the afternoon you meet again. He's on the beach, seawatching.
"Twelve Arctic Skuas and two Long-tailed," is his response to your query. "Plus I had an Ortolan low overhead twenty minutes ago, heading towards the paddocks."

Driving home later, you muse upon the day's outcome. Four Arctic Skuas and a Redstart. That other chap, meanwhile, bagged an Ortolan, two Long-tailed Skuas, a Wryneck, a Pied Flycatcher, four Redstarts, two Curlew Sands and a Spotshank.
"Or did he?" you accidentally say out loud.

A great way to see too much. Seawatch alone. Mid-week.

So, is our jammy friend simply that, or is he one of those birders who sees too much?

There is no doubt that such birders exist, and they can be exasperating, especially when they frequent your patch. But what do we mean by seeing 'too much'? And who decides how much is too much? To answer the first question, let's consider a couple of aspects of 'too much'...

1. Rare/scarce birds.
If you bird an area regularly, you soon get to know the relative status of its birds. If a birder repeatedly claims species that, while not necessarily uncommon elsewhere, are patch gold locally, well, the old alarm bells start ringing don't they? They are seeing too much.

2. Counts.
Let's say you have noted 5 migrant Willow Warblers during a circuit of your patch. You realise there will likely be others you haven't seen, but you don't reason that you've seen perhaps 10% of the actual number present, and therefore record 50. Only dodgy birders extrapolate. They are seeing too much.

What about the second question, who decides how much is too much? The short answer is: you do. And here's how it might happen...

When Derek Stringer first moved into your area and began to publicise his birds, initially you were impressed. Evidently, Derek was a birder with skills, dedication, and not a little jam too. You were delighted when he found that long-staying Dotterel, for example, a nice patch first. But soon you were noticing how many of his quality birds were fly-overs, or unphotographed, and how his counts were always much higher than yours, even when you were there at the same time. Eventually you began to doubt everything he claimed, if it wasn't photographed or in some other way verified.

Yes, that was your choice. You decided to doubt, to label Derek Stringer a 'birder who sees too much'. Why? What made you take that step? Hard to quantify, isn't it? Probably it wasn't a decision made overnight, but rather the result of steadily increasing activity on your dodginess radar. But most likely you won't be alone. Chances are, others will have noticed too, and before long Derek Stringer's 'sightings' are a frequent topic of birdy gossip, and his name added to the long, unhappy list of Dodgy Birders.

So, how do you handle the birder who sees too much? Should they be confronted? Outed? Ignored? Helped? Tolerated with resignation? Hmmm...

The Derek Stringers of our hobby exist on a spectrum, which ranges from the lying fantasist of part 3 to the birder who simply defaults to 'wildly optimistic' when a bird is seen badly and briefly. Add a dash of poor numeracy, carelessness, ignorance of a species' field characters and/or status, plus a host of other variables, mix it all together, and goodness knows what we're actually dealing with.

But how about this? Derek Stringer is simply a red-hot birder. He has vast experience of birding abroad, which has given him an intimate familiarity with countless species that are scarce or vagrants in the UK, including their flight calls and the colour and pattern of their briefly-seen undertail coverts. He has abnormally acute 20/20 vision, phenomenal hearing, a photographic memory, immense stamina, doesn't need to work and is half your age.

Would it be fair to label such a fortunate soul a 'birder who sees too much'?

Absolutely!! The swine.

Anyway, dear reader, I wish to be straight with you here. The catalyst which prompted this Dodgy Birders series was an incident of heinous dodginess that took place locally not long ago. We have a pretty awful stringer in our midst. His dodgy claims are now legion, and to the best of my knowledge nobody ever sees any of his birds. It all came to head a few weeks back when another unlikely (though typically plausible) claim spiralled wildly out of his control when the 'supporting' photos were picked up on Twitter, misidentified as something much rarer and given wide (and, I would imagine, very unwelcome!) publicity. The fall-out was no doubt embarrassing for the bloke, and actually quite sad to witness. At the time I was not sympathetic though. My gut feeling was that Premier League dodgy birders need outing. After a bit of thought I reconsidered. "Well, maybe not, perhaps they're best ignored." Five minutes later, and I'm "No, unmask the blighters!" Evidently I was conflicted on this issue...

It also reminded me that I am part of a wide network of birders of varying abilities and strengths, all of whom wish basically to enhance their enjoyment of local birding by contributing and sharing birdy news when they get the opportunity, and can be doing without all this nonsense. Is there a way to handle it without getting all bitter and twisted?

So, what I did was sit down and begin to write Dodgy Birders - Part 1. The process of getting it down on paper, so to speak, has helped me to be a bit more rational about the matter and get some perspective, which I hope will be helpful to anyone else who finds such folk a bit of a wind-up. However, I still haven't answered the question 'how do you handle the birder who sees too much?' or indeed, any and all categories of Dodgy Birder? Because that's for the concluding installment: Dodgy Birders - Part 5: What to Do About Them.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Questing On...

The Questing Rock, early doors today. Note closed-cell foam Rock topping. Essential.

Well, it's still on the cards. There was one at Dawlish today, and they're along the E coast still. All it'll take is a bit more northerly, a gentle prod in the right direction, and I'll be in with a chance.

Yes, we're talking Little Auk.

An hour's questing yesterday morning was quite lively, with a single Great Northern Diver flying W the highlight. Also 2 Brents, 3 Teal, a Little Egret, plus a steady trickle of auks E, a constant reminder that I am still rubbish at separating Guillemots from Razorbills -  a real blind spot, considering I've seen thousands and thousands of the things. By the way, my Lyme Bay Little Auk will not be out on the horizon where most of the auks live. Hopefully, like the previous ten I've seen locally at this time of year, it will be one of the closest birds, and instantly recognisable.

After that I popped into West Bay before heading for work. This was a Black Redstart mission. I checked all the spots I thought likely to hold one. Nothing. Finally I thought to try the Esplanade and promenade. At the end, beneath the cliffs, it was sheltered from the cold northerly, and there were indeed Black Redstarts. Four of them. Too distant to bother with photos, but very pleasing nonetheless.

I did get the camera out a couple of times though...

Through bins I suspected these were Wigeon, but the range involved meant I wasn't 100% sure. The camera confirmed it. Useful!

Couldn't help myself. Friendly Rock Pipit prancing about in the sunshine. Always good value.

Work took me to Seaton, and on Bridge Marsh, beside the road that takes you into Colyford, I came across this Greylag. I dutifully put the 'news' on the Patch WhatsApp group. A little later I was informed that it's been around since June. Ah. A reminder of my birdy lapsing. I was also informed that it has been given a name. It is called Gav the Greylag, supposedly. I suspect I am having my leg pulled...


So once again, this morning I headed for Burton Bradstock. Just a riffle of northerly. En route, Dan in Sidmouth had messaged that Woodpigeons were on the move. Getting out of the van I peered upwards for a while. Not a Woodpig in sight. After some questing I had another look, climbing the nearby hill to get a proper view of the surrounding landscape. Although I saw a few flocks of up to maybe a hundred birds, there was certainly nothing spectacular going on locally as far as I could tell. I have fond memories of vis-migging with Steve up at Axe Cliff some years ago, with enormous flocks of Woodpigeons whooshing past. And on Beer Head, with the flocks writhing and twisting as the local Peregrines got stuck in. Great stuff. None of that at Burton though...

The questing was a dull endeavour this morning. First bird was a drake Shoveler E. A portent of some nice duck passage perhaps? I gave it about 20 minutes I think, and it's virtually the truth to say that the last bird was also that drake Shoveler E, 20 minutes earlier.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 3: Don't Lie. It's Not Worth It.

In parts 1 and 2 we hopefully established two fundamental principles of birding:
  1. Correctly identifying birds becomes important only when birdy gen is shared with other birders. Up until that point, it is perfectly okay to live in a parallel universe where every other bird is a BB rarity; knock yourself out...
  2. Notwithstanding principle #1, all birders make mistakes. Knowing this, all birders consequently are (or should be) very tolerant when mistakes are owned up to.
And now, in part 3, we're going to discuss something that involves a fundamental principle not just of birding, but of life. It is this:

People hate being lied to.

In part 2 we touched on one scenario where there could be a temptation to lie, ie, in order to cover up an embarrassing misidentification. We might call this 'understandable' perhaps, but would never condone it, and any birder caught doing this (or simply suspected of it) is going to have a tough time preventing their reputation from suffering. But in birding, as in life, there are countless opportunities to lie, many of them far less 'understandable' than covering a mistake. Let us examine one or two...

Here's an example from real life. Birder X is doing a regional year list. It's late in the year, and a Leach's Petrel turns up on one of the region's vast reservoirs. Birder X needs it, and Birder X claims to have seen it. And Birder X produces a ropey photo to 'prove' it. Some of Birder X's fellow enthusiasts smell a rat and put this photographic 'proof' to the test. [I am not party to all the gory details but believe Birder X's regional tally was by now under the microscope anyway due to factors other than simply unfeasible hugeness.] Some careful sleuthing reveals that Birder X's photo has actually been nicked off the Internet. The image has been tinkered with too, prior to being presented as his own, which somehow makes it worse.

There is a birding blogger in the US who sometimes writes about this kind of stuff, and with reference to one individual similarly caught using photos fraudulently to back up his 'sightings', put it this way: 'That birder has since been excused from the birding community...'

Very sad.

The obvious question is why on earth would anyone do that?! One can only speculate. To me though, a more interesting question is this: why is such behaviour not tolerated? Really, REALLY not tolerated. After all, each of us is well aware of the various manifestations of human frailty, so can't we just live and let live when something like this happens? The short answer seems to be no. Here's my take on why...

Because birding is based very largely on trust, and trust is a sacred thing. When another birder tells you they've seen 4 Redstarts and a Pied Fly, you trust them to be telling you the truth. If they rush up to you, all red and breathless, gasping about the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper they've just found down the road, and urging you to come quick... well, you might think 'Ooh, I hope they haven't mucked up a Wood Sandpiper or something', but you don't for a second doubt their sincerity; you trust them in that sense at least. When the county recorder receives a load of seawatching counts from someone, he trusts those numbers to be pretty accurate. When you share your own sightings with others, you expect them to be taken in good faith, to be trusted. In birding we just expect the truth from one another, simple as that.

Therefore, in birding, as in life, betrayal of trust is a cardinal sin. To simply lie to other birders is pretty gross, and they won't tolerate it. In fact they will resent it. Even more so if they realise it is not a one-off.

And what the liars don't seem to appreciate is that resentful folk will seek retribution. That feeling of being taken for a fool will galvanise the most easy-going birders into a remorseless squad of vigilantes, intent on catching and unveiling them for the lying fantasists they are.

There is just a slim chance that someone reading this is thinking: 'Hmmm, he's talking about me. What he's described is exactly the kind of deceitful dodginess I get up to. But I'm careful. I will never be caught'. Well, perhaps you are not aware that they are already very much on to you. If you use social media, they will be taking screenshots of your nonsense and sharing it with one another, gathering evidence, building a case, trying to catch you in a lie. They will be discussing you among themselves and biding their time. Because eventually you will trip up mightily, will be confronted with your birdy crimes, and will be forced to come up with lame excuses like how in your excitement you accidentally posted a photo from a holiday taken six months ago, or accidentally typed 'Icterine' instead of 'Willow', or accidentally let a vindictive hoaxer have all your account passwords and post the stringiest garbage imaginable in your name...

Or maybe you're right, and actually you will never be 'caught' in the fullest sense. Nevertheless, while it may be true that no-one will ever be able to say of you: 'That birder has since been excused from the birding community...', you have already, in effect, excused yourself.


Coming up in part 4 of the Dodgy Birders series: the Birders Who See Too Much

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Yesterday and Today

Yesterday

To follow on from the last post: tomorrow came, and it was yesterday. First thing in the morning, the SW wind was quite possibly as strong as I've ever witnessed. I'm not one of these nutters who venture out to precarious places and take photos of massive weather in all its roaring glory, so I don't have anything like that to show you. But I did drive to West Bay shortly after 07:00, park up in a sheltered spot and walk into town. My plan was to cross the river, stroll up past the harbour and on round to the Esplanade to see how rough the sea was. Well, I got half way up Quayside, the road that leads to the Esplanade, and bottled it! And there was no 'strolling'! It was a struggle to stay upright at times. As I headed home for breakfast I realised that seawatching was going to be a challenge...

And it was. There were rewards for some Lyme Bay birders though. At the far eastern end, in the Portland Harbour/Ferrybridge area, 160 Kittiwakes, at least 4 Leach's Petrels, 2 Little Gulls and a Pom Skua. But elsewhere it was slim pickings, just a handful of Little Gulls, the odd Grey Phalarope or skua. In the end, I managed about two and a half hours seawatching, from two different spots, split 50/50 morning and afternoon. It was like the wind had scoured the sea clean of birds. Apart from a handful of distant Gannets and the odd foolhardy gull I saw absolutely nothing.

However, it wasn't all bad. For example, at 11:00 I turned green. This doesn't happen often, but is an absolute given when Steve texts from the Axe saying he's found TWO Caspian Gulls together on my old patch. Please see Steve's blog post here for ghastly details: 'Grippin' Gav, Big Time!'

Though I notice Steve has changed the post title now.

So, in the afternoon, when the wind shifted to WSW and moderated to something like a force 11 or 12, I thought I should get out and see if I could find any loafing gulls. I didn't know whether East Bexington would be any good, but nothing ventured, and all that...

It was rubbish. All the gulls had been blown away. So I made the best of it by walking west for around 15-20 minutes to check something out...

On the beach is a great big concrete bunker, thoughtfully constructed in WW2 for future seawatchers. It is so tall and massive that I felt there was good chance it might offer some decent shelter, and was keen to try it out in proper weather. It was perfect! Sheltering in the lee of the thing was utterly serene, after being pebble-dashed by horizontal rain and spray on the walk out there. I thought I had a photo of the architecture itself, but cannot find it. Instead, here's the view...

I guarantee you, not one fraction of one pixel of this shot has been spent on a bird. It is 100% sea, sky, shingle and scope.

I shall doubtless be returning to this spot in the future, because until now I've had little success in finding decent local shelter for seawatching in wet and windy conditions. The only birdy action was a flock of 22 Wigeon that manfully struggled into the wind over my head. They were making such slow progress that I was easily able to count, sex and age each one. And triple-check my findings.


Today

This afternoon I tried East Bex again. A new warbler in the Sallow Clump of Delight: female Blackcap.

And I thought briefly of Steve when I encountered this lot...

40-odd opportunities.
Actually, I'm liking the new camera. This 1st-winter Great Black-backed Thing of Beauty is approximately 100m away.

Caspian Gull is one of the few decent birds I seem capable of finding in recent years, so I will keep looking. In the meantime, I did see something else today that impressed me...

That speckly blur is several thousand Starlings in the air together. They are as far away as those cattle, and in the next shot they have just landed...
What a swarm!

Probably the largest feeding flock of Starlings I've witnessed. Quite a spectacle. I'm enjoying these early jaunts to East Bexington, and most visits have turned up something noteworthy. But that's about it for today. I am inundated with material for NQS right now - a couple of interesting things on Twitter that have made me want to opinonate vigorously, plus the 'Dodgy Birders' series to work on, and the Little Auk Quest has been extended...er...until a Little Auk happens. Might be a long-term thing...

Friday, 1 November 2019

Today and Tomorrow

Today

This morning I managed an hour at East Bexington before work. The Sallow Clump of Delight was leaping. Chiffs mainly, but also Goldcrests, Robins and a Firecrest again. Also a Merlin cruised overhead in a leisurely way. That's my third Merlin sighting since I've been venturing out here, compared with just a handful in umpteen years on the Axe patch. Not so many gulls around as previously, but obviously all of them were Med Gulls. There are very few dwellings at East Bex, but as the apex of nearly every roof in southern England bears the silhouette of a Black Redstart, I was hopeful. So far in this exceptional autumn for them I've seen none at all. Unfortunately, heading off to work, that was still the case.

I ate my lunch overlooking the sea at Freshwater Beach, between West Bay and Burton Bradstock. There's a holiday park here, with two or three hundred static caravans. More than enough roofs for a Black Redstart surely? Driving back through the park I crawled along very, very slowly, glancing left and right. Suddenly...

What a corker! And not on a roof!

That was more like it! Encouraged now, I ventured into West Bay, and in about five minutes of carefully trying not to bump into other road users while peering upwards I came across two more...

This somewhat smaller one on a building just south of the main car park...
...and this really tiny one on the tall apartments opposite the Bridport Arms Hotel

It would surprise me if there weren't more Black Redstarts in West Bay; I'm sure my rapid tour of the tiles didn't net all of them.


Tomorrow

I could bore you stupid by outlining the tedious DIY chore that awaits me, but no, instead allow me to tickle your fancy with this...


All this before breakfast, even!

My BBC Weather App is forecasting gusts in excess of 70mph at West Bay! See that dark pink bit there? In my imagination it is a vast, throbbing horde of helpless seabirds, barreling wretchedly into the deepest bowels of Lyme Bay, that grim shore where seawatchers go to die. Those of us brave enough to be out there in it tomorrow are going to be clutching our chests and hyperventilating as a steady stream of Leach's Petrels and Sabine's Gulls struggles past at eye-popping range, and Grey Phalaropes pour down upon us like feathery hail...

As I say: 'in my imagination'...

The reality will be a lot of salty optics and cursing, which will last no more than one hour, tops.


I'm not quite sure what's going on here, but six posts in six days suggests that someone else must be writing NQS at the moment...