Wednesday, 29 January 2020

One Two Three

Just occasionally birding presents you with an unforgettable spectacle which absolutely no one could have predicted. Today was one of those times...

On the Axe Estuary, Mediterranean Gull is a regular visitor but never numerous. My highest count is 16, on 19th Feb 2010, and the record stands at around 30 and is held by Tim Wright. A good time for bigger numbers is late winter, when there is usually a bit of gull movement anyway, and all my double-figure counts date from the end of January to late February. So it was nice, but no surprise, to spot four adults on the grassy island N of Coronation Corner just before I came through Axmouth at midday. Arriving at the river there were clearly a lot more gulls than yesterday. Phil was there and called me over. Amazingly he'd counted 28 Meds! As we watched, more were coming up the river in twos and threes, or dropping from above. In a short time we had counted 56. Fifty-six! Ridiculous!

Lunchtime Med Gulls. New arrivals at Coronation Corner.

Having busted the record by a mile, we retired for lunch, Phil heading for home and me for the van. The movement had stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and all the Med Gulls appeared to have settled on the shore with the many Black-headed Gulls present. Mike arrived to see them, but after a bit came over to tell me that he could only find a handful. Sure enough, they'd slipped away. Baffling. Well, that seemed to be that. A brief, inexplicable hour of Med Gull overload. One blink, and we'd have missed it.

A couple of hours later, and a message from Mike: '30+ Meds past Tower Hide and returned to Coronation Corner now'. I too returned to Coronation Corner, quite rapidly, and began counting Med Gulls. I got to 65 before the flock was spooked, some gulls heading off, the remainder settling again. Mike joined me and a fuller count took me to 83. There were many gulls further down the river, too distant to ID, but to be honest I was all counted out. 83 Med Gulls! No big deal further east towards the Fleet and Weymouth, but on the Axe? Totally unprecendented.

A sight to gladden the guller's heart
Just a few of many...

Eventually I headed for home, quite satisfied. Meanwhile, former record holder Tim Wright had become aware of the threat to his title. Girding his loins he set off for the bottom end of the estuary to begin a dogged count of departing birds. Because that's what Axe gulls do at the end of a day - they head downriver and out into Seaton Bay to roost. And can you guess how many he tallied up to dusk? The post title says it: one hundred and twenty three. Tim thereby retains his Med Gull crown. And who knows whether the earlier 56 were among the 123 or not, and how many others escaped attention? Remarkable...

It's funny, we're not talking about anything rare here, or even scarce really, but witnessing a mass arrival of Med Gulls on the Axe Estuary is one of the most unexpected and delightful surprises I've enjoyed in birding. Truly, no one would have predicted it.

There was also a big arrival of Black-headed Gulls and Herring Gulls, plus good numbers of Great Black-backed, but not even a handful of Lesser Black-backed. What on earth was going on? And why? Gulls are just so enigmatic. Love 'em!

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Er...Another One

This is getting silly. Somewhere in a parallel universe there is a vast assembly hall where scarce and rare birds meet to divvy up the quality. By means of a duly-elected committee they follow a strict protocol to decide which birders get to find what species. At yesterday's meeting...

So, Gavin Haig then. What do we think?
Well, he's actually birding a bit these days, and the rules dictate we therefore have to give him something.
Okay. Does anyone know what he wants?
Yes, It's common knowledge that he wants a Pallas's Warbler.
What? He's got to be joking! It's January, and he never looks at trees and bushes. But we all know where he does look though, don't we? Almost every day!
THE RIVER!!!
Exactly. Give him a gull. Pick one at random.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe....er...Caspian Gull!
Really? That was random? Ah well... It is done.

And so it was, while dodging an horrendous shower at lunchtime, that my eyes were strangely drawn to a familiar search image bobbing upon the water at Coronation Corner...

Well, hello there! A pretty classic look. Camera lens well spattered with rain, hence the slight mistiness.
Lovely pale underwing
Jammy flight shot...
...and a couple of the open wing.
A lot of nice silvery-grey scaps there, and few strong markings. Very different to the 7th Jan bird.

I'd be exaggerating if I said the bird never stopped preening, but only just. You are looking at the neatest, cleanest Caspian Gull in Britain. With its head perpetually buried somewhere deep in shiny plumage, it was incredibly hard to get a nice portrait shot. These two will have to do...

Actually, mid-preen. Bit of a 'saggy nappy' look to it.
Definitely got a rough deal when the legs were being given out. Mates call him Stumpy.

Even with his little legs, Stumpy was quite a chunk, and I think larger than every Herring Gull he came alongside.

It is frankly ridiculous that I've found four different Caspian Gulls this winter. I'm not complaining - on the contrary - but this seeming abundance might lead to the impression that they are not particularly rare in this neck of the woods. I think they still are rare, but reckon we're maybe seeing a better year than usual, that's all. Time will tell, of course...

One final thing. At certain angles, and in some photos, that upper mandible can look rather hooked. It didn't seem as obvious as the bird on West Bexington Beach on Sunday afternoon, but it had me wondering.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Untickable Views

This post is a brief appendix to yesterday's, in order to cover something I left out of that account because it would have got in the way of the narrative. I mentioned yesterday that I've managed a photographic record (however bad) of every Caspian Gull I've seen. Well, that may not be true...

Within just a few minutes of the 2nd-winter bird departing I was joined by Marcus and Phil, and eventually our number grew to seven. It was the first time in ages that I've stood with a bunch of other birders, and obviously it is very different to birding solo. Although there is of course the chatting and the not looking properly at times, the added fire-power of seven pairs of eyes means very little escapes notice. For example, it wasn't me who spotted the Yellow-legged Gull on the mere but, like everyone else, I benefitted from those extra eyes.

By this time the weather had cleared. The wind was still quite strong, but the rain had stopped. Away west along the beach a gang of gulls had been gathering. I'd run a scope across them once or twice, but at 4-500m range, with a haze of fine spray in the air and not the best lighting, I had struggled. While I was photographing the YLG a shout went up: a Caspian Gull candidate in the beach flock! I'll be candid. Although I got on the bird I didn't see anything like enough to count it. It had a long bill with a prominently hooked upper mandible - slightly deformed even - so was easy to pick out. But it was preening constantly while I watched it, and most of the bird was masked by other gulls too. Very unsatisfying. At that range, with those views, I couldn't do anything with it...

Collectively we decided to approach closer, and began to do so. But before we'd gone more than a few yards, someone further along the beach unfortunately spooked the flock and they all went up. I don't know if anyone managed to pick it up in flight, but I certainly didn't.

So anyway, that was that.

Caspian Gull is still a local rarity in Devon and Dorset, requiring a description. Even my lamentably low standards demand a full(ish) suite of characters. Unfortunately, based on my views there wasn't enough even to start a description, so I definitely couldn't count it.

As an habitually solo birder it is very rare that I need to worry about what someone else thinks a bird's identity is, but when in company it can happen. And when it does there is a handy catch-all expression for such situations...

Untickable views.

And those are the kind I had. Which means I'm not worried that there is no photo, and my unbroken record of happy pixels is therefore maintained. Obviously this is of...er...paramount importance. Even so, I'm a bit disappointed I couldn't clinch it. A two-Casp day would have been rather special.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

American Herring Gull - Unfolding Story...

So yesterday afternoon I walked from Cogden to the West Bexington mere via this...

Never again! In future, the beach, just the beach.

I even took my scope, and at the mere kept my distance and went through the gulls on offer, and then pointed it at the sea to look at some of the gulls planning to sleep out there...

8 Med Gulls in this shot.

Then home, and a quiet evening of Netflix and bottled beer. Or so I thought...

During a refill break I noticed a new email. It was from Ian M, and attached were a few shots of a dark and dangerous gull which had caught his eye on West Bexington beach that morning. What did I reckon? Well, I reckoned flippin' heck...

There are several reasons why this looks a very good candidate for American Herring Gull!
(photos: Ian McLean)

I relayed my opinion to Ian, adding that you really need the rump and tail to clinch it. Ian replied that although he had noted an all-dark tail and very dark rump, he'd not been able to photograph it. This nailed it for me, and I knew where I would need to be when I was free this afternoon.

It must be a decade or more since I twice dipped the AHG which graced the Otter Estuary at Budleigh Salterton, and the species has been on my radar ever since. But you never see really dark first-winter Herring Gulls down here, so in ten or more years I've seen nothing to get excited about. Until now.

And then this morning Mike Morse popped down to West Bex nice and early on the offchance...and this flew past...

AAAAAGGGHHH!!!! I mean, AHG.     (photo: Mike Morse)

I was free at lunch time. The weather was truly dire. Heavy rain, strong SW. I could stay at home and definitely not see an American Herring Gull, or I could go to West Bexington, get cold and wet, and probably not see an American Herring Gull. I chose the latter.

Initially I was alone, and the conditions were...er...challenging. It was pouring with rain, and blowing a mild hoolie. There were few gulls on either the beach or the mere, and none of them were in the slightest bit exciting. At first...

After 30-45 minutes of very little, a newly-arrived bird on the mere caught my eye. Through bins it looked a little bit like a 2nd-winter Caspian Gull. Through the scope it looked very like one. I really didn't fancy getting the camera wet, but thought a couple of minutes of video was worth a try. My plan was to lift a few stills from the video and see what they looked like. Well, it was a plan...

2nd-winter Caspian Gull, West Bexington mere. I am well aware that these shots do not look too clever really, but at least they maintain my record of something that can be called a photo for every Caspian Gull I've ever seen!

The video quality is awful. Most of the individual frames are very blurry, it is jiggling around non-stop, and the audio is just a violent roar. But it is genuine footage of the third Casp I've been fortunate enough to find this winter. I am absolutely delighted, and really don't care that the American Herring Gull didn't show. Oops. Spoiler...

I'm going to be honest here. All the Caspian Gulls I've previously found have been 1st-winters, and I'm comfortable with that age; I am far less confident with 2nd-winter birds. I've only ever seen two, and my fear was that I was mucking up a 3rd-winter Herring Gull. I really didn't think so, but, well, let's just say I wished I'd had a [waterproof] copy of Larsson & Olsen to hand. Anyway, I need not have worried. In the field it was easy to see the little mirror on p10, a great feature for 2w Casp (just visible in the shot beneath top right), and the state of the wing coverts, tertials and flight feathers, the bill pattern, the neat speckled 'shawl' and the lovely black tail band all confirmed its age. Woo-hoo!!

So, a few other birders arrived, and it was good to put faces to one or two names I knew only from t'internet, like Marcus Lawson, Brett Spencer and Phil Saunders. And I think it was Phil who spotted the next good gull...


Yellow-legged Gull. Judging by the tiny bit of black on the bill, not quite a full adult. Lovely.

This was about an hour and forty minutes after the Casp, and by now I was getting a teeny bit cold. However, there was no way I was giving in before everyone else, so I stuck it out until around 17:00. No American Herring Gulls, but...

Earlier I'd sent this tweet to Steve Waite...

Well, it ain't rocket science!

Yep, I really enjoyed myself this afternoon. I doubt I'll get much opportunity for gull chasing during the coming week, but you never know.

West Bexington. Dipping's not all bad!

Friday, 24 January 2020

A Non-Confrontational Exchange...

Whenever someone takes the trouble to leave a comment on this blog I will normally reply to it, if only to say thank you. Once in a while I feel compelled to respond more fully, and this post is a case in point. The catalyst is once again that lovely Seaton Hole Black Redstart and my soapbox monologue outlining the case against feeding it mealworms. A reader calling themselves 'Hull's Angel' expressed an interest in having a non-confrontational exchange on the subject, and asked what I thought might be the negative effects of feeding mealworms to the Black Redstart. In principle I am usually up for a discussion, so replied that I had no real idea what negative effects this action might have on the bird, but the negative consequences for people I had already sketched out in the original post. This prompted a longer comment from Hull's Angel, which I am going to use as the foundation of this post. I hope that Hull's Angel won't mind me breaking the comment down and responding piecemeal.

Hull's Angel begins...


  • Interesting. Think a good case could be made that feeding an insectivorous bird mealworms in a UK winter could be beneficial. Are you opposed to all feeding of birds garden bird tables, feeding stations on RSPB and other reserves, feeding swans at Welney etc etc?


No, I am not opposed to any of those things. Quite the opposite. But my soapbox issue is nothing whatsoever to do with the pros and cons of any of the scenarios mentioned in this question.

As an aside, when it comes to 'feeding an insectivorous bird mealworms in a UK winter' the RSPB has the following advice...

TIP: If buying dried mealworms rather than live mealworms, soak in warm water for 20-60 minutes before putting out to provide valuable moisture content. This makes them more attractive to birds plus easier to digest - especially for younger birds.

In the case of the Seaton Hole Black Redstart I don't know if this advice was being followed, but I somehow doubt it.

But here's the point: the Seaton Hole Black Redstart is not someone's garden bird, nor is it visiting an established feeding station. It is not being fed for its welfare. It is being baited. It is being baited by photographers.

Which leads nicely to this...


  • Also, I would think the effects on fellow photographers would be positive, they would get better pictures, and fellow birders would get better looks?


Well, I am a birder with a camera rather than a 'fellow photographer', so I cannot really comment from that perspective. However, if any actual photographers wish to offer a thought on whether the scenario would have a positive effect on them I would be delighted. Commenting as a 'fellow birder' though, is something I can do. I detest the whole scenario. 'Better looks' (or 'better pictures' on my bridge camera) are no justification for it, do not help me feel any better about it, and of course are utterly selfish motives anyway. Well, that's my opinion...


  • Aesthetically speaking, I'd be more concerned by the presence of a load of unattractive birders than a few mealworms :-) and more concerned as to what is good or bad for the bird.


Re 'what is good or bad for the bird' I would say this... 

During my years birding this area, Seaton Hole has always been a reliable spot for wintering Black Redstarts. The place evidently has what it takes to attract them, and I would guess that principally includes food and shelter. Knowing this, what would I say is good for the bird?
  • Keep your distance
  • Employ a little fieldcraft
  • Allow the bird to behave naturally 
  • DO NOT FEED IT

And bad for the bird? Pretty obvious really. The polar opposite of any of the above.


  • Feeding mealworms to birds is common at "blinds" in Asia and for antpittas in South America, to entice shy forest birds into the open for both birders and photographers.


Fine. Doesn't surprise me. 


  • I'm trying to get at exactly what it is that generates such strong feelings?


For me, such behaviour betrays a selfish disregard for the sensibilities of others. The attitude seems to be 'I am perfectly within my rights, I am not breaking any law, so it is therefore okay to do exactly as I please, and anyone who has a problem with that can go whistle...'

In everyday life one encounters such folk on a regular basis, so it's no surprise that some of them will be into birding and/or bird photography. And when I come across it in my hobby, that profoundly selfish attitude generates strong feelings. Hopefully that answers your question.


  • The issues between birders and photographers seems much stronger in the UK than in the US where I live, although some behavior such as baiting winter owls with live mice cast by fishing line here is beyond the pale.



I think it's true that the interests of birders and photographers often clash, which frequently leads to photographers getting bad press from birders. But these days the classifications 'birder' and 'photographer' are probably too simplistic to be of much help in any discussion of the issues involved. It's a topic that interests me, and hopefully I'll get to it in a future post...

The 'live mice cast by fishing line' doesn't need any comment from me. 


  • In my 55 years as a birder and 40+ years as a bird photographer I have seen at least as much what I considered bad behavior by birders as by bird photographers, but appreciate we all have individual opinions as to what constitutes bad behaviour.


These days I don't often go anywhere that birders or photographers might be present in numbers, but during my 17 years in this part of the country the vast majority of 'bad behaviour' I've witnessed has involved people with cameras. As you say though, that's based on my opinion of what constitutes 'bad behaviour'.

So, I hope I've covered everything that you touched upon, Hull's Angel, and that my viewpoint is clear and unambiguous. Actually it has been nice to express some of my thoughts in more depth, and though I would prefer to thank a person with a real name, I am nonetheless grateful for the opportunity.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Routine Birding & Unanticipated Blog Promotion

A very light offshore breeze was barely rippling the sea today, and with almost zero swell it was a great opportunity to see what was bobbing around out there. From the Abbotsbury tank teeth to East Bexington I counted 12 Red-throated Divers, 4 Great Crested Grebes and 6+ loitering Kittiwakes. I didn't count the numerous auks that were chugging about in little flotillas, but certainly there were quite a few hundred, and all those close enough to ID to species were Razorbills. Best of all was a Harbour Porpoise off the tank teeth. A lone Chiffchaff flitting through the beach-side vegetation at East Bexington was nice, and in several spots along the route I was accompanied by Stonechats, a bird which I'm always pleased to see...

Huge eye, scraggy plumage. Stonechat. Very lovable.

I had lunch at Burton Bradstock, where there was another Red-throated Diver, 16 Fulmars off the cliffs and lots more chugging Razorbills.

All the above could comfortably be filed under 'Routine' and, while pleasant birding, was not what you would open the 'Exciting' drawer for. And this is the general way of things isn't it? Most birding outings are indeed enjoyable in a very unremarkable way. I'm okay with that. There is only so much thrill a person can handle, so it's just as well I haven't encountered any more winter White Wagtails yet.

On a different note...

On Monday's NQS post I happened to mention my disappointment at hearing that the jolly smart (and photogenic) Black Redstart in residence at Seaton Hole was being baited with mealworms for photographic purposes, and outlined some of my reasons for feeling this way. My thinking on this matter is not some knee-jerk thing. I've been birding for many years, and my views on various aspects of this hobby have been shaped not only by my sensibilities, but also by experience. On some things I have strong opinions, and occasionally they make an appearance on this blog. Obviously, while I make no apology for that, I also accept that some will view things differently to me; that is their prerogative. So I was half-expecting some sort of response to Monday's post. However, I was not expecting it to get so many page-views, so rapidly - it is currently running at something like 4x the norm - and was initially puzzled as to why. And then I spotted this on Twitter...

Isn't there a saying about 'no such thing as bad publicity' or something...?

So anyway, here was the explanation. Lee has nearly 22x as many Twitter followers as I do, and a good number of them presumably clicked on the link and dropped in to NQS, maybe for the first time. I doubt they found what was alluded to (which is a somewhat inventive extrapolation of what my words actually said) but I am nevertheless indebted to Lee for the advertisement.

It was a thought-provoking reminder of how quickly you can access an audience through the internet, even unintentionally, and therefore why words are probably best chosen carefully. Once it's out there, it's out there. Birders of my ilk need to remember that... [insert winking smiley emoji]

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

An NQS Tradition Revisited

Yesterday I took my van over to Seaton for a bit of mending and its annual MOT test. This morning I returned to collect it. I was accompanied by bins, scope, camera and a hefty sum of money. Not all of us made it home...

To take my mind off the pain I spent a very long lunch break in Holyford Woods, looking for a Yellow-browed Warbler which had been found there yesterday. I suppose this could be called twitching. And I suppose what happened next could be called dipping. But it was good to bump into Phil, Clive and Richard and enjoy a good natter. Phil and Richard saw the YBW briefly before I turned up, while Clive unwisely picked those few vital seconds of performance to carefully grill the wrong bird. And that Goldcrest (and one or two of its mates) were with us almost constantly thereafter. A fine consolation bird was a Marsh Tit, the first I've seen for absolutely ages.

Of course, a visit to Seaton wouldn't be complete without some gull worship, but I couldn't pick out anything exciting amongst the modest collection on the estuary. With a sigh of resignation I reached for the ignition key and simultaneously flicked a final glance towards the river...

Wait! What is that distant white shape out there on the mud? Could it be...? My bins confirmed it, and moments later the P900 was in my hands and fired up for action...

And there it is! Dead centre, just as my eye first saw it. The Axe Estuary just keeps on giving...

Maybe a word of explanation here...

In the first year of the original NQS I wrote about a visit to Axe Cliff, the farmland E of the harbour, adjacent to the local golf course. Birding that farmland meant the occasional encounter with errant golf balls. On 23rd August, 2008 I found one plugged in the field next to the 14th green. I photographed it in situ, prised it out, took it home and looked it up on the internet. The advertising blurb made me laugh out loud, and a little NQS tradition was born. Here is a snip from that post...


Axe Cliff Gets a Visit (23 August, 2008)

A particular bonus of birding near the golf course is that I occasionally get to add to my Golf Ball List. I got a tick this morning. Here it is:

The amazing Srixon AD333

I used to play golf years ago and have never heard of this species (or genus, even) so it was a very, very tiny bit like discovering a First for Britain. Ok, that's a lie, but when I was able to research the literature imagine how thrilled I was to learn that the Srixon AD333 is....
  • 'The Ultimate 2-piece ball for golfers. The AD333 utilises a brand new revolutionary "Rabalon" blended elastomer cover which is exclusive to Srixon. It provides greater ball speed and initial velocity off the tee while providing soft feel and spin on all shots from tee to green.
  • The AD333 is powered by Srixon's proprietary super-soft Energetic Gradient Growth core which is firmer on the outside and gets progressively softer towards the centre. It delivers the optimal launch conditions - high launch angle with low spin.'
I can see it now.....

Our golfing hero strides confidently to the 14th tee. A pretty easy 166 yard par 3, stroke index 14. No sweat. He proudly whips out his ball with an exaggerated flourish, the dimpled gem glinting in the low morning sun. The desired effect is achieved - his colleagues gasp in awe: an AD333!! One of them leans over and whispers to the other two:

"Penetrating high trajectory for longer carry and roll.

Higher launch angle and lower spin for greater distance.

Superb soft feel on all shots from tee to green."

A hole-in-one is inevitable, it seems. However, they are hugely chuffed to see our hero execute a mighty hook. The naughty little AD333 follows a penetratingly high trajectory (with a lower spin) and it's true - there is a 'superb soft feel on all shots from tee to...field of oats'. With a rustle and a thud AD333 plugs nicely, lying low to await my chance discovery.

I suppose this particular ball was a bit faulty or something - surely the rest of them do what it says on the tin?

____________________________________


I haven't been to Axe Cliff in years, but spotting that golf ball in the Axe mud brought it all back and before I could stop myself I was falling out of the van, leaping six feet down onto the shore and flapping out over the mud for my prize...

P900 photo from the van. 2000mm zoom and I've got it ID'd to genus and species
Maxfli Noodle Long & Soft. And a #1 no less! Habitat context shot.

Back home I was straight onto the internet...
  • Satiny Soft Core
  • Super-fast and low spinning off the driver for greater distance
  • Slick and quick Surlyn cover makes this ball jump off the club
  • Special Design dimple pattern for high long-carrying trajectory
  • Feather Soft Landings
The usual nonsense. There are only so many ways to convince the owner of an appalling swing that the answer to his prayer lies in this little white thing and its 408 special dimples...

"Yes, sir. I realise that golf balls generally tend to spray off your club face at random, vicious angles and swerve unerringly into the deepest rough, but this one is different. The Maxfli Noodle Long & Soft is going to 'jump off the club' in a 'high, long-carrying trajectory' and enjoy a 'feather soft landing' in the river."

"Sweet. I'll take a dozen."

Monday, 20 January 2020

Winter Doldrums, and a Soapbox

Today is January 20th. In two months exactly it will be March 20th. Assuming I can maintain my current level of birding enthusiasm I would expect to have seen a Wheatear by then. Two months. And by April 20th many other common migrants should have joined Wheatear on the year list that I am not doing. Three months. By that time the flood gates will be open, and a gush of arrivals will be pouring onto the S coast just down the road from my home. Exciting times. There's little to beat the buzz you get from watching tired little passerines flitting over the breakers and across the shingle, and then diving into the first available bit of cover. Very exciting times. And there'll be sea passage too of course. Skuas! Super-exciting times!

But...

Those times are ages off yet. Weeks and weeks. And between then and now are the winter doldrums.

I suppose that old-time sailors caught in the literal doldrums would have needed a survival strategy. A way to eke out their meagre, limited rations until a rich variety of fresh provisions could be found and taken aboard. A way to view the exact same scenery each day without letting it drive them mad. Note the birdy parallels. Perhaps I too need a survival strategy.

In years past I found that year-listing would get me through most of January. There would be the special efforts required for Dipper, Jack Snipe etc, and then it would all come to a grinding halt for about 6-8 weeks until a burst of way-too-premature visits to Beer Head in the vain hope of an early Wheatear. However, now that I don't feel constrained by a patch there are several options open to the ornithologically becalmed...

Gulls
Obviously. Always potential with gulls, and in fact there can often be some good passage - think extra-dark Lesser Black-backed Gulls to compare with the 'intermedius' spectrum on your Kodak Grey Scale - and a decent chance of white-wingers. I've seen Casp and Ring-billed on the Axe in February, and expect to unwrap a lot of sarnies alongside that estuary between now and Wheatears.

Niche stuff
Admittedly there's probably only so much you can squeeze from alba wagtails and tristis Chiffs, but that won't stop me trying. Regarding the Chiffs, I hope eventually to record one calling, or even singing, and there's always the search for more. I've learned today that a Bridport site has two or three tristis present, which gives me hope that there are yet more to discover.

Local Exploration
When it comes to this option I have been deluding myself. I am coming to realise that all the little nooks and crannies that I am 'discovering' (or am likely to 'discover') have, in all probability, long ago been discovered by someone else. It's just that the birder density in this part of W Dorset is so low that you never meet anyone else. Especially inland. So I'll keep at it anyway, if only for the peace and quiet.

Camera Practice
A great way to extract added value from everyday birds. I really enjoy playing around with the P900, and will continue to do that through the next couple of months. Here are a couple of shots from yesterday afternoon. I couldn't face the coast, with all its people and dogs, so pottered around the high farmland E of Eggardon Hill...

Bud-munching Bullfinch, its bill covered with evidence.
One of a decent number of Corn Buntings, maybe 30+

While I'm on the subject of photography, let me share a big disappointment. Remember the Seaton Hole Black Redstart to which I paid homage at the back end of last year? I learned today that photographers have been baiting it with mealworms. I have only heard this, and not seen it with my own eyes, but sadly I have no trouble believing it. Regular readers of this blog will know that I very rarely get on a soapbox about anything (unless you count being a gull apologist) but in this case I'm going to make an exception.

If you are reading this, and have been baiting that bird with mealworms in order to set it up for a nice image, for the purpose of 'likes' and kudos, let me ask you a question: Where is your conscience? If your response is "What do you mean? It's not doing any harm," allow me to share with you just some of the consequences of your actions...
  • For others, you reduce what should be an exciting jaunt to see a confiding wild bird to something cheap and shallow
  • You cause those who put the news out to wish they hadn't
  • You tempt others - especially those who might not know better - to imitate your own selfish ways
  • Togs struggle with bad press as it is - you just add fuel to the fire
  • You decrease the likelihood that future photogenic birds will be publicised
I could have speculated wildly about the negative effects your actions would have on the bird itself, but because I am not so sure of my ground I shan't even go there. However, when it comes to what at least some of your fellow humans think about the matter, I am in absolutely no doubt about that. Please just pack it in.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

A Ton of Chiffs

For many months my exercise regime has been ticking along at 'non-existent' level. Everything went to pot some time before last summer began, and the consequences are visible right there in the outer reaches of my belt. We are in no-spare-holes territory. Desperate straits... So yesterday I dusted down my trusty old Orbit America and mounted it on a turbo-trainer in the man cave. This morning, before the sun had risen, I climbed aboard and cranked out 20 minutes of feebleness...

It was pathetic. But it was a start.

After lunch I burned some more calories by going out birding. But at the pace I walk, not many calories, and certainly not enough to offset the several shortbread rounds that troubled me for their attention at coffee time. So yes, that's something else that's got to change - the biscuit intake. Sigh...

Anyway, once again I tried to do something a little different this afternoon, and spent most of it investigating the Bride Valley, which runs from Burton Bradstock towards Litton Cheney. The stand-out highlight was Water Lane Fish Farm, again somewhere I had previously spotted on the map but never visited...

Water Lane Fish Farm

There is no general access to the place, but a footpath crosses it, so at least you can view across the ponds. Overhead there is a massive network of fine lines, presumably to dissuade birds like Herons and Cormorants from dropping in for freebies, and a modern otter fence surrounds the entire site. Bird-wise there wasn't much to see, but I did spot a Kingfisher, 3 Tufties and these...

Not fish farmers. So the overhead lines don't make the place burglar-proof...

The best feature of the fish farm was its approach road...

Track to Water Lane Fish Farm. Chiffies live here.

I spent quite a lot of time along this track, and counted about 10 Chiffchaffs. Try as I might (and I did) none was a tristis. I know it's a bit wrong, but I felt slightly diddled. So spoiled have I been that anywhere with a double-figure Chiffy count I am almost expecting to hold a Sibe Chiff too. There were also a couple of Goldcrests and a few Long-tailed Tits. Clearly there is plenty of food hatching out of that little ditch.

This Chiff sat here in the sunshine for ages. As soon as I got nearer though...gone.

I just wanted to include this next photo to demonstrate how effectively the P900 can focus past the foreground 'interference' on occasion. A good reason why it is worthwhile setting both the metering and focus on 'spot'. It doesn't work every time, but if you can get close enough to pick out a bit of bird through the twigs and leaves the camera is pretty good at focusing on it. And if you are too far away for that, chances are at least fair to middling that the depth of field will take care of things anyway...

In-focus Chiff through the twigs. Incidentally, it is notable how the legs of a regular collybita Chiff generally look rather red-brown, compared to proper black in tristis.

Nowhere else I tried this afternoon produced anything of interest, but it was nice to investigate these quiet corners anyway. The fish farm site was a pleasant surprise though, and one to note for the future. I finished the day at Cogden Beach, where I saw the orange-fire sun slip all too rapidly below the horizon, but very little else. All in all, a very relaxing bit of birding...

One final thought. Today's bunch of Chiffs got me wondering how many I've actually seen this winter. Adding up the counts from Colyton and Kilmington WTW, Chideock and Puncknowle WRC, the Water Lane Fish Farm and a couple of single birds here and there, I reckon a total of 100 birds is not an exaggeration. One hundred Chiffchaffs! And that's just me. How many others are out there?

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Alba Wag Tales

Well, I was aware that alba wagtails could be tricky, but I really didn't know the half of it...

Here in the UK we are used to our common breeding alba, the Pied Wagtail. Basically a black and white bird, particularly the male. I've always believed that picking out the migrant White Wagtails which pass through in spring is a fairly straightforward affair. With their clean, mid-grey upperparts they usually look quite distinctive to my eye. Come autumn, with loads of young birds around, things get trickier. We still get migrant Whites, but I've always understood them to be quite doable, given good views and some caution. However, my somewhat relaxed attitude to alba wags has been blown out of the water after reading this...


My jolly mission to find myself a winter White Wagtail and thereby add a little spice to the chilly season's birding was tantamount to opening the proverbial can of worms. Confirming a [presumably] rare winter White among a horde of its common cousins is actually not for the faint-hearted.

First of all you need a 'Kodak Grey Scale'. Then you need to compare various bits of your candidate bird to said scale and see what numbers you get. This is hard. The blasted things do not let you get close enough unless they have just that moment died. They run away, and often will fly to the next field. Next you put your results through the 'Adriaens Criteria' listed in the ID paper above. Following that you either stake a claim...or creep quietly away.

The following features need assessment...

  • Rump colour (in a specific area of the rump) 
  • Colour of mantle/scapulars
  • % of blackish colour on mantle/scapulars
  • Colour of flanks
  • Extent of flank pattern (scores 0-2)
  • Pattern of belly
  • Head pattern

Then you crank a handle and out pops a result...

Well I did my best with the photos I'd taken, and I still reckon yesterday's bird is a White Wagtail according to the 'Adriaens Criteria'. However, you will not catch me claiming winter White Wagtails in such a carefree fashion again. I have learned a bit of a lesson here, and will be a lot more circumspect in the future. The reality is that the alba complex is, er, complex.

But will I go through this rigmarole again if I spot a likely candidate? You bet.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

A Winter Mission Accomplished

Well, at least I think so...

Since picking out what I thought to be a White Wagtail at Colyton WTW a few weeks back, I have been on the lookout for them. I had another candidate at Kilmington WTW more recently, but it was brief and didn't give me the chance of a photo. This morning I tried Kilmington again, and eventually found what I was looking for. I am no alba wagtail expert, but from what I have read, this bird fits the bill...

Virtually unmarked grey crown, and grey rump almost concolourous with the mantle.

Best of all, it wasn't alone. Loads of Pied Wags nearby gave me a few opportunities to photograph them side by side...

It looks so neat and clean beside the Pied Wags. That is certainly how it caught my eye.
Nice rump comparison.

I will admit that finding and photographing (convincingly!) a White Wagtail in mid-winter is a little bit niche, and not going to be on everyone's birding agenda at this time of year. But since getting into tristis mode in December I have found myself more and more attracted to these sewage works locations, because they are teeming with birds. Kilmington is the best I've found, but Colyton is very good too. And with all these alba wags around, I simply had to find a way to get excited about them. Job done...

Also at Kilmington WTW were two Sibe Chiffs and a Firecrest. I am really struggling to get a photo of the Firecrests I see - mostly I get a green blur or birdless vegetation - but today I did at least manage a decent shot of both the tristis. In fact it was checking the photos that told me I'd definitely seen two different birds...

Gorgeous, pallid little Siberian Chiffchaff
Tristis #2, and the reason they like to hang around the sewage works

By the way, as I mentioned at the beginning I am not an alba wagtail expert by any means, and would welcome any feedback either way on this bird. Obviously I think it is a White Wagtail, but if it isn't please tell me. I'd rather learn than be left in blissful ignorance!

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The Best Local Twitch Ever!

Sitting here I am accompanied by the sound of gusting hoolie, and the air is full of drizzly murk. Thankfully that's all outside, and I'm not. We seem to have been afflicted by similarly grim conditions on a far-too-regular basis right through the late autumn and winter, though today for some reason it has triggered a memory. A memory of similar weather, but on a summer's day, just over 12 years ago. Like today, I'd been out birding first thing, hoping for some storm-driven goodies, and been disappointed. Like today, I'd returned home and battened down the hatches. The date was August 14th, 2007...

It's late morning and my phone rings. It's Steve...

"There's an Audouin's Gull at Seaton Marshes!"

I'll just pause there for a moment. Assuming you are a birder reading this, and no matter where in the country you are situated, I think I am safe in assuming that receiving such a call from a fellow local birder would trigger a cascade of utter chaos in your body. Like it did in mine. If I had been wired to a device for measuring the many physiological processes happily chuntering away within, there would have been a sudden explosion of spikes. Big, big spikes.

"Really?" I said, somewhat inadequately.

Because that's how I respond to chaos. I also hurtled round the house like a madman, grabbing optics, camera, car keys...and was at the Seaton Marshes car park very rapidly indeed. The only other vehicle there was Steve's. A quick phone call confirmed that he was in the hide and the bird still present. I am not ashamed to admit that I ran. I ran to that hide like the gangly, scope-carrying, middle-aged man I was. The indignities we suffer for a bird...

Two fields to the north, a large flock of gulls was sheltering from the horrible weather. They were at least 500m distant, and between us and them was a load of rank vegetation and a barbed-wire fence. Much of the flock was hidden from view, and the birds themselves at least partially obscured one another. Buried in the melee was an Audouin's Gull. How Steve managed to get me on it I don't know, because the only bits visible at that moment in time were its mantle, its wing tips, and the back of its head. A few seconds later the gulls all shuffled around a bit, and it was completely hidden. We waited. And we waited. Nothing.

Steve had an appointment elsewhere and reluctantly was forced to tear himself away, leaving me alone. Alone with an invisible, stonkingly mega-rare gull, somewhere out there in that seething mass of dross. I felt a heavy responsibility not to lose it, and dared not take my eye from the scope...

And then, after what seemed an age, I realised I could see it. Not all of it. Just a white, beady-eyed head, and a bill like deep-red lipstick. For the next 90 minutes it was cat-and-mouse, as the Audouin's kept vanishing and reappearing. Three times it flew a short distance, shifting position in the flock, and gradually I pieced together a description. And then suddenly it was in virtually full view, preening, for about ten minutes. By now the hide was rammed solid, and it was a challenge getting some digiscoped shots now that there was finally an opportunity. But I did, and here are three of them - screenshots from the BBRC description which still resides on my laptop...

These photos give some idea of the viewing conditions. Compared to some parts of the flock, this lot were remarkably unobscured! Hopefully it's apparent which one is the Audouin's, but in case not, it's the 23 pixels just left of the fence post.


Finally I relinquished the prime spot I had, and exited the hide. Since other birders had begun to arrive I'd been on a bit of guilt trip, knowing that latecomers would be struggling to get any view at all, let alone a good one. The bird was frankly a nightmare to see.

Steve, meanwhile, had returned from his errand and was watching the bird from a house which overlooks the marshes. I'm sure he won't mind me including a photo he took through the window; it's my favourite image of the whole event...

Steve Waite's photo of a massive OOF!! Just imagine the adrenaline rush!

Not long after my departure, the whole flock did likewise, and around 14:00 the Audouin's was lost. By now the area was full of birders twitching the gull, and they spent the afternoon searching far and wide. Two young twitchers were among that eager throng, but despite a reported 'possible sighting' of it flying down the river at 20:00 there had been no sign, and as the evening began to draw in and the light fade, they decided to hunt out the local Tesco for something to eat. In 2007 there was no such thing as a Seaton Tesco, but there was a holiday camp along Harbour Road which had a rather utilitarian, Tesco-like appearance. They spotted the buildings and pulled over to investigate. A few gulls were perched on the roof, so, a quick scan...

I can only imagine the resulting euphoria!!    (Photo: Dan Pointon)

Ironically, the holiday camp was later demolished, and the site is now where the Seaton Tesco lives.

I am fortunate to have been party to some terrific birding moments over the years, but the Seaton Marshes Audouin's Gull is right up there among my favourites. The excitement, the difficulty, and the unexpected little twist at the end...it was brilliant. I know I've related this tale before, but hopefully it's one that bears retelling...

Monday, 13 January 2020

One Lump, or Two?

When birding really got its hooks into me in the early 1980s I'd be on the Staines Res causeway as often as possible, bothering all the regulars in a quest for gen. Gradually I got to find out about the lesser-known spots, and frequently bumped into the same pair of birders at such places: Andrew Moon and Pete Naylor. They were W London fixtures really, and the London Bird Report was peppered with their initials. For example: Caspian Tern, Staines Res (AVM, PN), Little Bunting, Poyle (AVM, PN), Collared Pratincole, Staines Res (AVM, PN), and so on ad infinitum. As a duo, they found an awful lot of good birds. I would sometimes meet up with birding mates and we'd do a few W London sites together, but the vast majority of my birding even back then was solo. I enjoyed some pretty good finds, but not in the same league as AVM and PN, and I can remember wondering if Pete and Andrew did so well as a result of pairing up. And the 'solo versus duo' question interests me still. Which is best?

Actually, that's a really poor question. I mean, best for what, exactly? So, rather than try to tackle such a vague and open question I'll just think out loud for a bit...

As an habitually solo birder, I am always in tune with my companion. When he's up, so am I, and when he's down, I am right there, rooting for him. He wants to linger by this weedy field for ten minutes? Me too! And breeze past this perfectly inviting hide like it doesn't exist? He must be reading my mind...

One reality when birding in company is the need to compromise. Whether in conversation, route, speed, or whatever, it will always be at least a bit different to how you'd go about things alone, and possibly sometimes that will grate. That said, when there is something like a big raft of ducks to go through, a pair of you can each start from opposite ends and halve the time and effort. That's a plus. Hold on though! Suppose the newly-arrived Ring-necked Duck is in the right-hand half, and you started on the left...?

This is a problem. Unfortunately, finding stuff is a prime source of birding jollies for me. Mates finding stuff when you're with them is very nice of course, and if it's rare enough the buzz is so terrific it hardly matters whose eyes arrived first, but generally I want them to be mine.

Is that bad?

There. I'm being honest. I'm just a selfish finds hog. And flying solo is a guaranteed way to find your own birds. Except when you overlook them...

And that's where two pairs of eyes are potentially better than one. While you're being distracted by a fly-by 1cy Yellow-legged Gull candidate, your mate (who hates gulls) can get on with finding the Chestnut-sided Warbler you would have missed. And though you didn't personally find it, you will at least be in on it, as opposed to "... that divot who walked straight past it. I saw him! He was looking at some poxy gull, and me an' my crew found it in the bush right behind him!"

In truth I can think of several occasions when I would have missed really good birds had I been alone. And here is one scenario where many pairs of eyes is usually (and I mean 'usually') an advantage...

A lovely morning at Berry Head, autumn 2010

Anyway, the aching, desperate, pathetic desire to find good birds by myself is not the main reason I prefer birding alone, honestly, but who's going to believe that now...?

So which is best? One lump or two? I guess it's a matter of taste...

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Some Chiffs, a Walk, and a Puzzle

This afternoon I visited Puncknowle, a small village inland from West Bexington. Just down the hill lies a little sewage works, a facility with which I've become quite familiar this winter. Obviously this was a Sibe Chiff hunt, and in fact my second attempt at this location. Last time the weather was lousy, and I managed maybe six Chiffs and a few Goldcrests. This time the weather was nice, and I managed maybe six Chiffs and a few Goldcrests, so at least it's being consistent. All the Chiffs were non-tristis. A couple came quite close at one point, and out of curiosity I played some tristis song to them. No reaction whatsoever; they were oblivious. So I tried some collybita song. Wow! They both went bananas, coming closer and wing-quivering like the Kilmington tristis birds did. A short while later a single bird was quite near, so I tried some abietinus song on it (which sounds just like collybita to me) and had the very same response. Interesting...

Anyway, Puncknowle Water Recycling Centre has had its chance and been found wanting, so I doubt I'll bother again this winter. I'm not upset, because access is rubbish.

Puncknowle WRC. I mean, where else would you want to go on a sunny Sunday afternoon?

From Puncknowle it's an easy drive to Cogden, where I parked up and strolled down to the beach, then slowly E towards the West Bexington Mere. There was hardly anyone about. Perfect.

I was barely birding really, it was more a walk with bins and camera. If there had been a Snow Bunting on the beach it would need to have mugged me to get noticed. I was hoping for a few gulls to check out, but it was absolutely dead, and soon the metronomic step after step of shingly trudge became almost hypnotic. Bliss-s-s-s-s...

Before you reach the Bex Mere there are a few fields lying back from the beach. I've had Corn Bunting here a couple of times, so wandered over to check them out. Two or three modest flocks of Linnets went past, and then I came upon something a lot more interesting - a bunch of Yellowhammers. Popping up and down between their feeding spot and adjacent hedge, they were too distant to go through properly with bins. There were at least 60+ birds, and I looked carefully for anything obvious, like male Cirl Bunting, and I think I would have picked out any Corn Buntings too, if they'd been present. I think. Just to be on the safe side I took several maximum-zoom photos of birds on the deck, intending to check them out on the laptop when I got home...

...photos like this one. Lots of lovely Yammers.

On the way back to Cogden I followed the seaward edge of Burton Mere, which is basically a reed bed, and flushed a Snipe, and then a Water Rail - the first I've actually clapped eyes on at Cogden - and listened carefully for Bearded Tits. No joy with the latter, but I know that one local birder has seen birds here on a couple of occasions quite recently. A nice Bullfinch up near the car park...then home.

So, it's been quite fun sifting through the Yellowhammer pics, looking for a nice surprise of some sort. I don't know what I was hoping for really, but I did get this little puzzler...

Hmmmm. That doesn't look like a warm, chestnut rump to me.

The only other species I noticed among  the Yellowhammers were a few Chaffinches and a single Linnet. So what's this? I can't see a likely culprit on any of the other photos. Answers on a postcard to: Mystery Bird Competition, NQS...

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Siberian Chiffchaff - A Conclusion

I think I am just about done with my Siberian Chiffchaff reading. It has embraced a wide spectrum of material and is slowly eroding my will to live. However, I would like to impart at least the essence of this journey via NQS, and have decided to begin at the end. So, here is the bottom line...
  • If it looks like a tristis, sounds like a tristis, and has the DNA of a tristis, it's a tristis. Sorted.
So just get out there, find yourself a cheery little 'pale and interesting' Chiff, take a description, record its call/song, and pop that dropped feather/fresh poo into an envelope addressed to Prof Martin Collinson at Aberdeen University.

Yeah, right...

Or, you could do what I've done. Read enough bumph to convince yourself that any pale and interesting Chiffies you come across are pretty much guaranteed to be tristis. Forget the DNA test. Enough people have already been down that road to persuade me that birds which look like a tristis will return a DNA test result saying exactly that. If you hear it call, great. A nice, flat, sad 'eeep' or 'iiihp' (at approximately 4.5 kHz, for those of you with perfect pitch) will do nicely. If you don't? Never mind. Almost always, if it looks like one, it will call like one.

Having said that, there are a couple of ways you could get yourself in a pickle. The first is by worrying unduly about the F-word...

Fulvescens
This word crops up everywhere, and generally is used to describe birds which differ in appearance from so-called 'classic' tristis (which show no yellow apart from at wing bend/underwing, and no olive in crown or mantle) by having some limited yellow/olive in their plumage. Like these birds...

Top two: one of the Colyton WTW birds
Bottom two: Chideock WRC bird (RH photo courtesy Richard Phillips)

Note yellowy-green on wing edges, tail, etc. Frequently I have seen 'fulvescens type' used to describe a Sibe Chiff like this. Unfortunately, when bandied about in birder chat the term seems usually to be applied in a disparaging way, inferring that the bird either is not a Sibe Chiff at all, or is some kind of tenth-rate one. However, I have read enough to be very confident that the vast majority (if not all) birds that look like those two above will be absolutely stuffed to the gills with tristis DNA. That's good enough for me. They are tristis. Probably from the W end of the range, but still tristis.

The next two beauties are seemingly not fulvescens type birds...

Bottom left: Kilmington WTW
All others: Colyton WTW bird #2

These two birds are closer to 'classic' tristis than the top two. But, for me, all four are still tristis. The three pics of Colyton WTW bird #2 illustrate how cautious we need to be when assessing colour tones just from photos. They're all slightly different, and prove to me that a description based on just an image is not trustworthy.



The other way you might get your underwear knotted is by worrying unduly about the dreaded...

Contact Zone
This is the vast mixed playground where abietinus and tristis overlap, and little chiffing hybrids are made. Drilling down into the genetic nitty-gritty of birds in this zone is the proverbial can of worms. Even well to the E of this zone, on the West Siberian Plain, some of your pukka tristis are quite likely to carry tiny, tiny bits of abietinus baggage. It's a mess, frankly. And the only way I am able to deal with it from an everyday birding perspective is to leave the lid on.

The obvious question is, surely at least some of our pale and interesting Chiffs must be dodgy hybrid/backcross beasts? The logical answer has to be yes. And what about abietinus? Well, maybe...

But...

For a start, as far as I can discover, very few abietinus Chiffies have been proven by DNA in Great Britain and Ireland. Something like nine in total, as of a couple of years ago. And, importantly, abietinus doesn't appear to look like a Sibe Chiff. As far as mucky hybrid things are concerned, well, it must theoretically be possible that your putative Sibe Chiff will look like one on the outside, but be a genetic smorgasbord on the inside, but the rule seems to be that Sibe Chiff candidates - including so-called 'fulvescens' types - give tristis DNA results when tested.


All the above is admittedly a very simplistic treatment of what is clearly a complex issue. That's deliberate. I do not wish to make this the dullest NQS post ever by quoting figures and citing various 'authorities' left, right and centre. What I want to do - and what I'd love any reader to be able to do - is be confident that the pale and interesting Chiff which has just crossed our path can be indentified without a massive palaver. My own treatment of the little cuties will be as follows...
  • Is its plumage somewhere on the spectrum of tristis - including so-called 'fulvescens'? Yes? Have it.
My research into this has convinced me that at least 99% of the time this will be a safe ID, and for a bird that is not mega-rare that's good enough for me. If it calls, great. But I've spent quite a lot of time with five different birds this winter, and I've heard just one of them call, on one occasion, three times. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't need to call.

But wait a minute! My county needs the call, or song, for a tristis to be acceptable.

This is a fair point. Sibe Chiff is no longer a BB rarity, but it is still scarce, and records are now assessed at county/regional level. Speaking personally, my local area's recording policies are not going to affect my own. But perhaps you feel differently, and are not happy to count birds which would be 'unacceptable' to your local records committee. If you won't count a tristis as a tristis unless you hear some sort of vocalisation, fine. Who am I to dictate how you should handle your own records?

As for me though, a sight-only record will be fine.

What I've summarised in this post is my own little tristis odyssey, and the sentence above is where it's taken me. Hope you've enjoyed the ride...


I don't normally do this, but I want to close with just a few words of appreciation for help along the way. Thanks go to Martin Collinson and Mark Lewis, for kindly sending me pdf copies of their respective BB papers; to Mike Langman, Joe Stockwell, and several Twitterati for encouragement of various kinds; to Richard Phillips for the smart photo of the Chideock WRC bird, and finally to Lee Evans for some forthright debate. I know Lee will disagree with my conclusion, but that's okay, he doesn't have to live with my questionable standards.