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!


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...

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.


  1. Could be worse for the bird itself Gav. Back in Eric Hosking's day, he related how he was suspicious of how another photographer had obtained an amazing picture of something and ascertained that it had in fact been shot dead and propped up in a lifelike pose.

    1. Thankfully those days are gone Ric, but your tale reminds me of the obvious 'collector' who was spotted lurking at the Axmouth Long-tailed Blues back in the summer. Some people appear to have such a callous disregard for their fellow humans. It saddens me...

    2. "those days are gone" - are they really? I offer you three letters and ask if dismembered specimens (Red Data species being more the point) isn't seeing the study of our natural world headed back to the dark ages of Victorian times. This isn't a callous disregard for humans, this is a disregard for life itself. I give you PSL - I'd rather feed meal worms to a Black Redstart, in order to get my photo than resort to pinning a specimen just for a tick in a box and a sad image of a, id clinching, disembowel life form. I suppose we should be thankful that these "togs" carry cameras and not guns!

    3. Dylan, in the broadest sense, no, those days are not gone, obviously. My response to Ric's comment was in the context of its content, ie, that shooting a bird and propping it up for a fraudulent photo is a thing of the past. Photographic 'techniques' these days are not likely to require the subject to be peppered with lead shot.

      Apologies if you took my comment to imply something else. I certainly did not intend to.

  2. I remember arriving at the Rubythroat in Holland, my first and only euro twitch, and discovering the area carpeted in mealyworms, more than the bids could ever eat. Thinking about it, it did cheapen the experience. The rise of the no bins Facebook tog (I have another name for them) has put me massively off photography I have to say.

    1. Jono, I spent just a few minutes at the Black Redstart mentioned above, and the woeful fieldcraft displayed by two of the photographers made me want to hurry away asap. I don't know which is worse, chasing or baiting, but both leave me dismayed.

  3. Good focus with your P900 - interested in your preferred set up ?

    1. Cheers Andy. I wrote about my initial set up in this post back in December:

      However, at the moment I am trialling the 'P' mode. Everything dialled in as per my 'A' mode settings, apart from ISO, which I've set to 'auto' in order to find out exactly how much noise is going to be evident in low-light photos, and whether I can tolerate it. So far I'm happy with it.

  4. Agree with your comments about the Black Redstart. Shame there’s always a few who like to ruin it for others and/or give others a bad name. Learnt a lot in my short time birding, including what not to do (& what I feel isn’t right). There are now species I don’t put out publicly for the sake of the bird because of such / similar behaviour - like Grasshopper Warblers.

    Also, interesting to see how you get on with P mode. All my photos are taken on that mode, but I’ve never know whether that’s the best setting or not!

    1. Thanks Anon. Sadly it is just those 'few'; most birders are really considerate.

      In theory 'P' mode should give me what I want. I think! We'll see...

  5. I'd be interested in having a non-confrontational exchange with you about the feeding of mealworms to the black redstart. I'd be interested in what negative effects you think it might have?

    1. Hello Hull's Angel. Sure...

      Negative effects on the bird? I don't know. At best I would be speculating. So I shan't do that.

      Negative effects on fellow birders/photographers? Outlined above. Of course, that's just how I feel about the matter. Others may feel differently, and obviously that's their prerogative...

    2. 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? Also, I would think the effects on fellow photographers would be positive, they would get better pictures, and fellow birders would get better looks?
      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. 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. I'm trying to get at exactly what it is that generates such strong feelings? 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. 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.

    3. Some good questions there, which I'd like to tackle in a bit of detail. If you don't mind I shall build a blog post around this topic, using your Qs and thoughts as a foundation. Thanks.

      Live mice on fishing lines?! Very inventive. I'd not heard of that, but am not surprised. Terrific 'pounce shot' possibilities. Sigh...

  6. I don't report birds of Black Redstart calibre and less immediately.I believe that If you want one, go out and find one of your own, it is possible!

  7. A blog post sounds good. Look forward to reading it.