Saturday, 29 February 2020

Please Make it Stop!

Today marks the end of meteorological winter. What it doesn't mark is the end of this wet and windy weather. It feels like the rain has barely paused in four months, and the start of spring will see no let-up. Bo-o-o-o-o-oring! I am really tired of it. Instead of a nice beach walk this afternoon, the prospect of a chilly battering, heavy showers and clouds of spray encouraged me inland to Kilmington WTW on a Sibe Chiff quest. How were they doing since my last visit?

Conditions were poor. The strong wind mostly kept birds out of the boundary hedge and down on the filter beds, so viewing was quite distant. Bright sunshine made the Sibe Chiffs slightly less easy to separate from some collybita than normal, but there were certainly at least two still...

1. Sibe Chiff in typical dining area.
2. Pretty sure I've photographed this one before...
This photo taken 15th Jan. I could be mistaken but I think it's the same as the bird in photo 2.

It was very difficult to assess exactly how many there were though. Two is the most I've seen previously, but it wouldn't be a shock to learn there were actually three or four birds. Today they were generally just too far away for the sort of photos which facilitate recognition of individuals. And they were flighty as anything. The revolving sprinkler arms ensured all the Chiffs were constantly buzzing about to avoid an impromptu dousing.

Midweek visits to the Axe at 'lunchtime' have been disappointing. Med Gulls appear to have resumed their pre-123 levels, with just two or three at a time, and Lesser Black-back passage was negligible. Up until a month ago I needed only to glance at a group of big gulls for a Casp to throw itself at me, but again we are back to normal. All very humdrum...

This blog has been quiet for a few days too. I think the relentless weather is dampening all sorts of enthusiasms just now. Mind you, I've no right to whine about it. At least we're not flooded out like some. That must be just so awful...

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Spray

There are lots of advantages to reaching 60 years of age. Free prescriptions is one. The many others are eluding me right now... But anyway, the disadvantages are very, very few. In fact I can only think of two or three hundred, but one of the worst - and easily on a par with 'vastly reduced amount of remaining life' - is the need for specs. If you are one of those fortunate enough to be old and yet specs-less, I envy you. But don't get complacent. There is still time...

I remember the carefree days of 20/20 vision. As a youngster, happily prancing around in a world of crisp, focused clarity, I had little appreciation of what my specs-wearing friends and relatives were having to put up with. And then one day I realised I could no longer read stuff. You develop little tricks. Holding things up to the light, or at arm's length, or squinting hard enough to compress your increasingly reluctant eyeballs into some kind of working shape. But there soon comes a time when all these dodges are futile, and you get your first reading specs. That was some time in my 40s. You start with +0.75 and speedily work your way through bigger and bigger numbers. It is crushing. When you first try reading specs it's amazing. Print is suddenly BIG and BOLD again. You think 'Wow! These'll do the trick!' but all too rapidly they don't, and it's time for an...er...upgrade.

This was back in my digiscoping days. I could bird specs-free all day long, until I needed to use the camera, because without specs the screen was a blur. Was the bird in focus? Was it even in the shot?! Where did I put my specs? Strewth, I hated the things. Or rather, the need for them...

And then in my early 50s I began to sense that my distance vision was failing too. Where I used to be able to scan a hedgerow and with the naked eye immediately spot a bird sitting up, suddenly I needed bins to be sure. Flyovers became intriguing fuzzy blobs, high ones invisible. And so, in 2012, I joined the world of full-time specs wearers. And not any old specs. Vari-focals. Very clever lenses which combine your reading and distance needs into one window. They take some getting used to, but have transformed my birding. However, there are drawbacks. One of them is sea-spray...

Arriving at West Bexington this afternoon I peered along the beach at this view...

See that hazy stuff hanging in the air? Spray.

All very picturesque, but sea-spray sticks to specs like iron filings to a magnet. In no time at all you've got this...

Frosted glass

It's a right pain. And puts me off visiting Bex, Cogden etc, when there's a stiff onshore wind. Which is a shame, because I love a beach walk on a rough day; it's so invigorating. Even today, though the wind wasn't all that strong, the heavy breakers crashing on the shingle threw up a fine mist of spray. Soon enough you've got half the English Channel clinging to your specs. On really bad days it's been so annoying that I've resorted to taking them off and doing without. It wasn't quite that troublesome this afternoon, but I needn't have worried anyway because the birding was about as unspectacular as it can get. Apart from a handful of passing Lesser Black-backed and Common Gulls reminding me that at least some passage was happening, and a strange urge to count Tufties on the mere (46) it was basically just a Sunday afternoon walk. I didn't quite have the beach to myself, but close enough...

Portland in the distance. Just stunning...

Well, I've somehow managed to wangle a whole post out of almost no birds of note. Result.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Therapy

Like anyone else I am subject to the stresses and strains of everyday life, and it can certainly take a toll at times. I realise that people have a variety of coping mechanisms, but for me hobbies have always been a powerful antidote to life's downers, a means of therapy if you like. And this afternoon's prescription went like this...

I drove to the Axe Estuary, arriving shortly after 3pm. My visits to the Axe these days are usually squeezed around work, so there's always a slightly urgent note to them, a feeling that I ought to be scoffing down my sarnies double-quick and hurrying back to get on with some honest toil. Naturally I fight such unreasonable constraints, but the notion remains, along with little pangs of guilt. Today though, no such issues. I parked up at the bottom end of the river and then did something I haven't done for years. Normally I would be in a vehicle, viewing from a number of stopping points along the road, but this afternoon I climbed down on to the estuary shore and walked slowly upstream...

The view upriver, towards Coronation Corner

Gulls hang out on the opposite bank, and are very rarely troubled by anyone walking the eastern shoreline like this. Dog walkers do it all the time, and the only time I have known gulls to flush is right at the tail-end of the day when they're on the point of leaving anyway. They can get a bit jittery as dusk approaches and it's almost like they're looking for an excuse to take umbrage at any real or perceived disturbance so they can fly out into the bay to bag a prime spot in the roost.

So that's the story today. A quiet amble upriver, stopping at regular intervals to scope up the gull collection. And I did it properly. Not just the big fellas, where Caspian Gull is the prime quarry, but the little ones also. Although I was probably a bit late in the day for the best numbers, there were still many hundreds of BHGs and Common Gulls to sort through. For me it is a soothingly therapeutic undertaking. Scanning methodically through the assembly, you one by one identify and pass on. BHG...BHG...BHG...Common...LBBG...Ooh! Med Gull. Nice...BHG...BHG...etc... I didn't do much in the way of counting, though there were definitely 25+ Lesser Black-backs. I tried with Meds, but never got past 12 before they'd all lift and fly around a bit. Some would leave, the rest resettling. After a couple of times I gave up. At a guess, 30+ Med Gulls. No Ring-billed or Bonaparte's Gulls today, but if there had been I like to think my careful sifting would have nailed them...

Here's a nice little test for any budding gullers. How many Med Gulls in the following pic? In my London days this photo would have been unimaginable, and I guess it would be pretty amazing even now for many inland birders.

A typical scope-full...

Answer: there are three; two adults and a 2nd-winter. If you reckon you're not really into gulls but still spotted all three within 5 seconds, well, stop kidding yourself, just surrender to it. If you spotted four or more, go take a long hard look in the mirror, you stringer.

The next test is slightly trickier, but there is just the one Med Gull in the photo. So, how quickly can you find it? Ready...go!



Okay, if you spotted the Med Gull without clicking on the image first, well done. If you enlarged the pic first, then spotted it, well done. If you simply clicked on the photo to confirm your suspicion, again, well done. Yes, well done for any of the above, because just making the effort to find the Med Gull is a fine thing, and evidence of what a discriminating birder you are, with a commendable appreciation of avian quality. Med Gulls are without question 24-carat birds, but not all of us are blessed with the ability to detect that. You are fortunate indeed!

So, that was it this afternoon really. A very relaxing stroll up the estuary, carefully picking through the gulls. No time constraints... Very soothing. Nothing special in the way of scarce or rare stuff, nothing particularly notable at all in fact.

Just...therapy.

And back we go...downriver to the car, and home...

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Soon...

Yesterday lunchtime I visited Colyton WTW for the first time in a while, and eventually found both Sibe Chiffs together in a really photo-friendly spot. Unfortunately that discovery coincided with a downpour, and before it stopped they had moved on and I didn't see them again. So no pics...

Quite good numbers of gulls on the river. I counted 65+ Med Gulls in the morning, and 50+ mid-afternoon. A really good movement of Common Gulls too, well into three figures, probably 2-300 at least. Lesser Black-backs were passing through as well, though I never saw more than 15-20 at a time; but no intermedius candidates yet.

I was in the Seaton area again first thing today, and had an early look at the gull collection. A surprising 55 Med Gulls amongst the otherwise modest gathering. Something quite profound has happened to the status of Med Gull on the Axe. And it's happened overnight. From barely any all winter, and an all-time max of 30-something, to...well, here we are in silly-numbers land since Jan 29th. Very weird.

By this time of the year birding me is usually bemoaning the direness of mid-February, how it's all a bit flat and monotonous. So I was just gearing myself up to write that sort of post. But Serin, a biffing great American Herring Gull, much personal Casp jam, Sibe Chiff joy and so on... You can see the problem. I have nothing to moan about. And yet...

As I made ready to leave the AHG last Friday, Phil jokingly called out: "Hopefully we'll have a proper bird for you soon!" or words to that effect. Phil meant something NOT a gull of course, but yes, no matter how good the birding, as winter drags on I cannot help wanting a change too. And not just in the weather. Spring is just around the corner, and the gull passage already underway is a beguiling reminder of spring's promise. It will bring birds. Lots and lots of birds. Hopefully - if I stay the course and keep my optics shiny - there will be that magic moment when you're traipsing along the beach early one morning, and...

Well, hello again...

Monday, 17 February 2020

Something From Nothing

This post is simply a description of the Caspian Gull at West Bexington just over three weeks ago. I thought it might be useful as an example of what it is possible to extract from a rubbish video. Instead of fumbling around with a camera I could have spent another couple of minutes with the scope and then from memory tried to write a description in the field notebook which I don't carry these days, desperately trying to shelter the imaginary pages from the foul weather. But I didn't. I got some jumpy footage instead. I know which I prefer, and I can guess which is easier for a county records committee to assess...



2nd-winter Caspian Gull

Date: 26th January, 2020
Location: West Bexington, Dorset
Conditions: Very strong SW, steady rain, air full of fine spray. Dull and overcast.
Distance from bird: Probably 100-150m
Time: Shortly before 14:00. The bird was in view for several minutes, but probably less than ten.
Other observers: None.
Previous experience: As of 26th Jan 2020, 14 previous Caspian Gulls (11x1W, 1x1S/2W, 2x2W), all on the Axe Estuary, Seaton, Devon; all photographed. My first was a 2W in October 2007.

Initially picked up on the West Bex mere with bins (Zeiss Dialyt 10x40 BGAT) it was the clean white head and breast which caught my eye, belonging as they did to an obviously immature bird. I realised it was a candidate for 2w Caspian Gull, and scope views (Nikon ED82A 25-75x zoom) confirmed. After loafing on the mere with other gulls for several minutes, the bird lifted off and flew into the wind, over the beach and away.

Despite awful weather I really wanted some images, and recorded 1'50" of video on my Nikon Coolpix P900. The video is available here. The following stills are taken from that recording, and illustrate various ID features, as highlighted in annotations or text...

Photo 1

Photo 2
Photo 2 shows complete, narrow black tailband, and clean white underparts.

Photo 3
Photo 3 also shows dark secondaries. This, plus the complete, narrow tail band definitely rules out 3rd-winter Herring Gull. While I was watching the bird I couldn't remember exactly what HG of this age would look like, so it was a niggling worry at the time. However, 3W HG would have grey, adult-type secondaries with white trailing edge, and just traces of tail band.

Photo 4

Photo 5

Most 2W Caspian Gulls carry a small mirror in p10, and Photo 5 depicts it clearly. Through the scope it was surprisingly easy to see this feature on the open wing, mainly from below because p9 largely masks p10 from above.

The combination of features shown by this bird rules out Herring Gull. It cannot be HG in 3W plumage for reasons outlined above, and 2W HG would not look as clean white on head, breast, belly and underwing. Neither would it be this advanced in moult on the scapulars (usually few grey feathers, if any) and coverts (again, few grey ones) and its tail would have a wider, less sharply-defined terminal band. According to Gibbins et al (2010) a p10 mirror is shown by 1-5% of 2W HGs (particularly argentatus) so any 2W bird which has this feature is far more likely to be a Casp. In addition, there were no anomolous features which might suggest a hybrid origin.

Finally, it is helpful to compare the photos above with the bird in the following image. This 2W Casp was seen in Torbay in November 2015, and three days later on the Axe Estuary, Seaton. Note similar state of moult in scaps, coverts and tertials, the bill pattern, whiteness of head and underparts, and spotted 'shawl' on nape. It all matches the West Bex bird extremely well.

2W Caspian Gull, November 2015
Top: Torbay, Devon (photo: Mike Langman)
Bottom: Axe Estuary, Devon (photo: Ian McLean)


References: Gibbins et al (2010) - Identification of Caspian Gull Part 1 (BB 2010)


Here endeth the description. I realise this kind of post is a bit..er...'specialist', and if you have reached this paragraph after wading through the rest of it I do hope the above was helpful. If I am jammy enough to find interesting birds in the future I might well do it again.

The Twitching Thing

Back in the day  I never gave much thought to twitching, I just did it. I kept a British list, and vaguely remember breaking 200, then 300, and that it seemed important somehow. I suppose the first birds I ever 'twitched' were incidental goodies which happened to be on hand during visits to Norfolk and the like. You'd bump into birders and they'd ask if you knew about the so-and-so. A negative response inevitably led to them telling you where it was, and it seemed obvious to simply follow up the tip by going to see the bird. Was that twitching? Debatable I guess. But episodes like this gave Mrs NQS and me some memorable birds, like our first Dotterel, Black Guillemot, Spotted Crake and Buff-breasted Sandpiper back in 1981/82.

Soon came friendship with other birders, membership of the telephone 'grapevine', and a mutual desire to see new birds, especially rare ones. Almost every twitch I remember was in company, when the thrill of anticipation becomes infectious and stimulating. If our dawn raid to see some feathery little waif was successful it was dead easy to gee one another into zipping across country to the next tick...

Though I do remember one vintage jaunt which had a different vibe. A November day in 1983, and I was at Staines Res. A routine visit with routine fare. Alone on the causeway I pondered the fact that I was here, seeing 'nothing', while a Pied Wheatear was in North Norfolk. Also a bonus Richard's Pipit. Both potential ticks. So I abandoned Staines and drove straight to Weybourne, arriving some time in the afternoon. I did see both birds, but my lasting impression of that trip is one of anticlimax. It felt as if I'd gone simply out of boredom, and was probably the first time I wondered if twitching was really for me. Certainly it felt very different on my own as opposed to in company.

Subsequent years saw many more twitches, some absolutely bursting with stress and anxiety, some just blah... Then there was phasing, and dusty optics. And finally a move to East Devon in December 2002, which rekindled something...

Although there have been periods of deep phase in the last 18 years, mostly I have managed to be a birder. But a twitcher??

Well, sometimes.

In fact, if you count local patch birds, there's actually been a lot of twitching! Unless I was in the middle of a phasing spell I would always go to see good patch birds if I could. One or two were lifers, many were patch ticks, but lots were neither. Which raises the question, why twitch a bird you don't in some way 'need'? Hopefully that will become clear...

So, American Herring Gull. If you read the relevant NQS post it is impossible to miss the utterly frantic nature of the 38 minutes between my learning about the bird's presence and my seeing it. They were awful! But why? I don't give a monkey's about my British or any other list. I'm not a twitcher per se. So what on earth elicited such emotional havoc?

Was it the bird? Partially, yes. I twice tried for Matt Knott's Otter bird a decade ago. I really like gulls, and for years have wanted to see AHG in the flesh, if only to find out for myself how distinctive it is, or is not. But I can say this with virtual certainty: had it been in Weymouth I would not have gone. I've nothing against Weymouth, but the place doesn't mean anything to me.

So was it the location then? Partially, yes. The Axe patch unquestionably has a place in my throbby little birder's heart. I love that estuary. It has given me so many super moments, particularly through its gulls. When Steve was describing to me exactly where the bird was, I asked 'On the gravelly strip?' 'Yes,' came the reply. I could see it like I was there. Except I wasn't! Aaggh!

So, a combination of the bird and the location. Was that it? Was that the magic mix? Again, partially, yes. But there was one more ingredient...

In my years in Seaton I was always part of a team, and those individuals - those birding friends - are inextricably tied up with my fondness for the Axe patch. As clearly as I could picture the bird on that gravelly strip in front of the tram sheds, I could picture so much more. I could see Steve, in a state of mega-excitement and stress, desperately willing others to hurry up and get there, and the bird to not fly. I could see Ian, Phil, Kev and others rushing around for their optics and keys, also willing the bird to please, please stay put. And you know what? I wanted to be part of that. Solitary creature that I generally am, I nevertheless wanted to share in that excitement, to get stuck in and be involved in this momentous event on my old patch.

One occasionally sees twitchers getting knocked, and twitching itself dismissed as some kind of less worthy activity. I think this is very unfair. In my experience at least, twitching has rarely been about a number, but rather about a bird, a location, and good company. That is the magic mix, and it can truly be enormous fun. Why knock it? If there's one thing all of us need in this world, it's a bit of light relief...

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Always Look at Gulls

Badly misjudged the weather today. I can read a forecast like anyone else, but for some reason I thought we were getting just the odd shower until about 2pm. So I optimistically headed over to Seaton for extra helpings of American Herring Gull. Er...

Storm Dennis was going on. And a storm is a storm. The horizontal deluge, brim-full river and thin supply of gulls quickly persuaded me to make do with just the one massive helping I'd enjoyed yesterday, and go home. I spied a few birders huddled in their cars and silently wished them all the best as I slunk away.

There is no doubt that the Lyme Bay American Herring Gull has been a popular bird. A short video I stuck on Twitter has already been viewed in excess of 4,700 times, and yesterday's NQS post has had something like 6x the usual number of readers. And I'm sure some of that popularity is not simply because AHG is rare, but because it's a rare gull. There are a lot of gull fans out there. And yet...

Gulls are a bit Marmite, aren't they? My own interest in them goes right back to early days at Staines Res, and finding my first London Med Gull there in 1982. The species was actually quite rare in London back then, and a major prize. Fired up by this success I habitually scanned any group of gulls I came across, hoping for another. On 28th November that year I was picking through a distant flock on the drained north basin when a slightly odd bird caught my eye. It was smaller than a Herring Gull, very pale grey, and basically had no white tertial crescent. It was London's second Ring-billed Gull, a 2nd-winter bird. It was also only my third 'BB' rarity, and thus far the trickiest ID challenge I'd been faced with, full stop. Being quite 'new' to gulls I was aware of some features to look for on Ring-billed, but had no idea how much you needed in order to clinch the ID, so just noted everything I could see. Thankfully I got enough, but learned later that the description needed two circulations before it was accepted. A close call.

Thirty-eight years later my memory is a bit iffy, but I am fairly sure it was the virtual absence of a white tertial crescent which stopped me in my tracks and made me look again at that bird. But why would I notice such a thing? Because I had been making it a habit to look at gulls. And when you look at hundreds and hundreds of gulls on a regular basis it soon adds up to thousands and thousands. And that steady parade of familiar shapes, colours and patterns gradually becomes a sort of background noise, against which something different leaps out like a shout. That's my theory anyway, but I think it's true.

One of the local birders present yesterday admitted that he would most likely have looked straight through the American Herring Gull without seeing it. I am absolutely sure I would not have. Like Steve describes in his account of the find, it would have yelled at me from across the river. Why? Because over many years I have looked at countless gulls, and eventually you find that even the subtly different birds make you stop and look more carefully. I cannot always say exactly what it was that caught my eye - in fact I doubt that I consciously think about it - but something did. First-winter Caspian Gulls, I do know what it is. It's the white head. Not just white, but white!

A year or two after the Ring-billed Gull I still hadn't seen a London Iceland Gull, but old London Bird Reports told me they sometimes turned up in reservoir gull roosts. That was something I'd never tried, so began climbing in to Wraysbury Res late on a winter's afternoon and sneaking round to check out the roost. On only my first or second try I found a Glaucous Gull. Win! Just the encouragement I needed in order to persevere. Soon I had my Iceland Gull too. Brilliant! It had a dark mark beneath one wing, and turned out to be a bird which was spending its days many miles away in Berkshire, feeding on a tip. That winter I found one or two more Iceland Gulls in the Wraysbury roost, and other birders began to join me. We even had an adult Med Gull one evening. Bonus!

Back then, as now, I got a major buzz from finding a good bird, and looking at gulls was a great way to increase the potential for that happening. I realise that Caspian Gulls and the like are not as obvious as a white-winger, but the field characters are learnable, and with every manky young Herring Gull that you look at, analyse, identify and discard, you are one step closer to something a bit more special. And then one day a bird will stop you in your tracks, and you will realise you've got something different. Maybe a mild panic as you struggle to remember what features to look for. Then a growing realisation that this actually could be a Caspian Gull. And no 'expert' pointed it out. Not only did you find it yourself, but you can even say why it is one. That is a nice feeling.

However, I do realise that not everyone can be bothered with any of this...

I remember once going into the Tower Hide at Black Hole Marsh. Two or three birders were present, and lots of gulls on the estuary in front of the hide. Among them was a virtually white Iceland Gull. No one else had seen it; they basically didn't look at the gulls. When I pointed it out they did look, but it clearly made little impression. Fine. Each to their own I guess.

But boy, are they missing out! Apart from umpteen scarce and rare species to get excited about, there are other things. Like migration. Loads of gulls migrate, and noting the arrival, departure and passing-through of various species adds another facet of interest. And colour-rings. Many gulls are marked with plastic colour-rings which are designed to be read through binoculars or a scope. Recording and reporting them, and getting feedback on an individual bird's history, adds one more facet. And did I mention about the rare and scarce thing? Oh yes, I did. Well, it bears mentioning twice. Because if you don't bother with gulls, then this becomes a possibility:

You won't know what a Pallas's Gull is.

And if that's true, then this becomes a possibility:


Heart-attack material

One of the above could be sitting in the flock right there in front of you, and you would be totally oblivious. And if that's true, what is the point of living????

One day some poor soul is going to be hospitalised as a consequence of finding one of these in Britain. If I am the one destined to suffer this fate, so be it. I am ready.

And if you always look at gulls, you will be ready too.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Beast!

It's 14:17 and there I am, innocently toiling away in Bridport. My phone rings. It's Steve...

'Gav, I've got a candidate American Herring Gull...'

I don't recall much of the 3'16" conversation which ensues. A brief discussion of useful field characters, details of its exact location on the estuary, that kind of thing. It's hard to concentrate. I am a good half-hour drive away. Mercifully I am able to head over immediately.

The stress...oh my life! It is such a long time since I've endured a pukka drop-everything-and-go twitching experience, and I'd forgotten how bad it is. Steve very, very rarely makes a mistake; if he thought it was a very good candidate, it would definitely be one. Torturing me the whole way were memories of times past. Similar phonecalls, similar nail-biting drives, and calamitous dips. Gull-billed Tern...Laughing Gull...the Axe patch has not always been kind to me. And yet, it might stick...it might just stick. Oh ple-e-e-ase let it stick!

Pulling up by the handful of birders already present I was a wreck. Still there? Yes it was. Yes. Yes! YE-E-E-E-SSSSS!!!

Exactly 38 minutes after ringing off from Steve, I took this...

See the black thing in the middle? American Herring Gull!

It was gob-smackingly dark. And big. BIG. And aggressive. And utterly, utterly gorgeous. And here are lots of photos to prove it. First of all, in company with various regular argenteus Herring Gulls. Just cop that massive bulk in comparison! It's a beast! I was struck by how certain poses accentuate the 'collared' effect that separates the paler head from the darker nape and underparts in a similar fashion to Caspian Gull. Note the smooth dark belly and pale-based bill leaning towards Glaucous Gull pattern. It even has a different facial expression to our HGs...


And a few shots highlighting other useful ID features like the strongly barred rump and undertail, the almost wholly dark tail with just a few whitish notches on the outer web of the outer feathers. I didn't manage any decent open wing photos, but don't care...

Big, dark, plain centres to many of the scapulars.

Initially I suspected this was not the same bird which Ian McLean found on West Bexington beach back on 25th January. My memory of the photos told me the scaps were darker, plainer. I was wrong. Here is a comparison of the two birds in a vaguely similar pose...

Despite the almost three-week gap in time, and the differences in resolution, it is easy to pick out similarities in these shots. They are one and the same bird.

In some ways I was encouraged by that fact. If it is still in the general vicinity, it may well appear again, and perhaps establish enough of a routine that a lot more birders might connect with this absolute monster of a gull. I hope so.

Finally, here is a video compilation from this afternoon. Please forgive the occasional background vocalisations. Main commentary by Harry Waite...

Thursday, 13 February 2020

When in Doubt, Press 'Record'

So, yesterday I posted a video. It claims to depict a 2nd-winter Caspian Gull on the mere at West Bexington. If you haven't viewed it yet I would politely ask that you do, because I have three questions...
  1. Out of ten, how would you rate it quality-wise?
  2. From the video alone, are you convinced that its subject genuinely is a Casp?
  3. Was exposing my precious camera to the wind, rain and salt spray for 1'50" worth the bother?
Here are my own answers...
  1. 1/10, maybe 2/10 at a pinch.
  2. Er...
  3. Absolutely!
The rest of this post is devoted to explaining my answer to Q3...

While on the Devon Records Committee I was tasked with producing an article on description writing. The premise was simple. Like most (all?) counties Devon has a list of birds considered locally rare, sometimes known as 'description species'. In my day I'm sure we lost some perfectly genuine records because the bird was inadequately described. My brief was to write something that would help anyone reading it to compile a solid, convincing description. It was entitled Tactical Description Writing...or How to Help the Records Committee. I have no idea whether it succeeded in its purpose, but I was surprised to discover that it still resides on the Devon Birds website and can be accessed here. I was even more surprised to note that I wrote it more than ten years ago. Rereading it was also a glimpse of an earlier me, a me who was actively involved in, and encouraged, record submission back then. Hmm. My conscience was duly pricked. Anyway...

Here's the point of all this. On 26th Jan I was fortunate enough to encounter what looked like a scarce gull, a 'description species'. Scope views had convinced me that it may well be a 2nd-winter Caspian Gull. The conditions were appalling: blasting wind, steady rain and the air full of spray. Caspian Gull is tricky. It's one of those birds which you ID not from any single feature, but a combination of several. I basically knew what to look for, so tried to do just that. One feature that did show up well in the field was the little white mirror in p10 (the outer primary) but some others were harder to discern. For example, I could see it had lots of grey, adult-type coverts, but which ones exactly? The underwing appeared to be very white, but was it? My scope and I were getting battered about all over the shop, and so was the bird. I realised that trying for photos would be a waste of time, and didn't fancy exposing my shiny new camera to a rainy salt bath anyway. But what about a quick video? Well, perhaps you've seen it now, and like me wondered whether it was worth the bother?

The answer is yes. Yes it was. Very much. I'm amazed really. It's like someone has just switched the light on, and finally I see the possibilities open to the modern-day birder. Less than two minutes of dire video can turn a 'possible/probable' into a nailed-on 'definite'. Here's how...

My computer gear is basic. A modest Windows 10 laptop, with Picasa 3 for photo editing. I simply uploaded the video from the camera and then accessed it via the standard Windows 10 video player app. By clicking on a little pencil icon ('Edit in Photos') you are then able to go through it frame by frame, and save any useful ones as a still image. And you don't necessarily need sharp images in order to illustrate a particular feature. Nearly all the frames were blurry, but I easily got enough to put together a convincing description. But I'll save that for another post.

Rarely have I been so pleased with an image so utterly awful. Tucked away in this massive smear is an excellent 2nd-winter Casp feature. If you find yourself going 'Ah yes, there it is...' well, gulls are either sucking you in or have got you already. Welcome. 

I realise that some birders have been doing exactly this for years, but for me it is pretty much uncharted territory. Maybe you too? I hope it's not just me...though I do expect there are NQS readers out there going 'Ha! Welcome to the 21st century Gav!' and chuckling a bit...

Getting good photos is great, and I am absolutely delighted with what the Nikon P900 can do, but some tricky birds might demand images which are difficult to capture, like an underwing shot, say, or exposed rump. Pressing the shutter at exactly the right moment is a challenge. This Caspian Gull has opened my eyes to the potential of the video function, because without it I'd have got nothing.

So, in prep and coming soon, description of West Bex Casp...

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

West Bexington Caspian Gull 26/1/20

Finally learned how to post a satisfactory video on the blog. So, here is one minute and 50 seconds of the 2nd-winter Caspian Gull at West Bexington on Jan 26. It was raining and very blowy, and it shows. If you like the sound of roaring wind, turn the volume right up...



Tuesday, 11 February 2020

January 2020

Experience tells me that I am not immune from phasing, so in order to mitigate that tendency I plan at least to write a monthly review type post, come what may, just in case there's been nothing else for the previous four weeks. This is the first. I know it's a bit late, but the idea only occurred to me this afternoon...

January 1st. The very flooded entrance to the West Bex Reserve.

January was very kind to me. In no particular order...

White Wagtail. One birding friend put it like this: 'Reckon you dug a big hole for yourself with that one, and just about managed to climb out...'  I think he's not wrong. Winter White Wags are no doubt very scarce at least, maybe properly rare. With hindsight, my ID research before claiming it was a bit sketchy. After the fact someone did kindly put me on to a very definitive paper on the topic, and thankfully the bird survived closer scrutiny. In future I will try to remember to do research first. Here is the little scoundrel...

Looks pretty cool though doesn't it?

Caspian Gulls. Finding three Casps in one calendar month is ridiculous. Two 1st-winters on the Axe, and a 2nd-winter on the West Bexington mere. This crazy hit rate has done wonders for my confidence, and just at the moment I feel almost hard done by when a big gang of gulls produces nothing, forgetting that this is actually the norm! Getting into gulls has added so much to my birding. The learning curve is endless, and if you like a challenge I cannot recommend it highly enough. Without exception I have found that more experienced and knowledgeable gull enthusiasts are happy to help if you seek it, and gracious in their doing so. And the rewards are obvious...

Gulls rock!

7th Jan. Axe Estuary 1st-winter
26th Jan. West Bex 2nd-winter
28th Jan. Axe Estuary. Lumpy 1st-winter

Sibe Chiffs. Prior to this winter I was very unsure how exactly to define a tristis Chiff. So it was deeply satisfying to reach a happy conclusion on this. Essentially I've adopted a 'best-fit' kind of strategy, but I'm conscious that many other birders have likewise embraced the necessity for this. For me the complex reality of Chiff genetics precludes a less pragmatic approach.

The journey was fascinating. There is stacks of literature on the topic, and some of it is perfectly readable. Even the stodgy stuff contained enough gems to warrant wading through it. Having birds respond to song playback was a real thrill. You're giving them the soundtrack of a Siberian forest, and suddenly you appreciate just how far away from home they are...

Kilmington tristis, with typical sewage filter bed background.

Med Gull Invasion. At least 123 Meds on the Axe in a day. Compared to a previous record of 30-odd. It was brilliant to witness this. I wonder if it's the start of something...?

Jan 29th. There are 10 or 11 Med Gulls in this shot alone. Mad.
Jan 30th. Quite a few still around. Beautiful gulls.

Other stuff. There was twitching. Going for Ian McLean's American Herring Gull at West Bex might have been a dip, but it earned me the Bex Caspian Gull and a bonus Yellow-legged Gull. Plus I got to meet a few of Dorset's birders and practise my social skills.

There was a golf ball...

Maxfli Noodle Long & Soft rescued from the estuary mud. Lifer.

There was a frustrating exchange with a bird photographer. Not my finest hour, but unless there is a compelling reason not to I tend to let NQS be a 'warts and all' kind of thing. Actually, frustrating is not the word. Depressing fits better. All the good birding has been a fine antidote though...

There was a lot of solitude. Birding alone, in beautiful surroundings, has been a major feature of the month, and exactly what I was hoping for. No pressure to stick to a defined area, or to keep a list. It has been utterly liberating...

Burton Cliffs, looking E from Freshwater Beach at sunset. When birds don't matter...

Monday, 10 February 2020

What's in a Name?

Some birders are re-e-eal touchy about nomenclature. I use the word advisedly, because that is exactly what I mean, as in 'the devising or choosing of names for things, especially in a science or other discipline'. Well, birding is a 'discipline' (kind of) and the names you devise and choose to give to birding's 'things' (birds) is a matter of enormous consequence to some of those who practise it (birders).

To see what I mean, try this...

First, go to a random, very popular birding spot and find a Thrush Nightingale. [It's absolutely vital to do this before taking step two] Step two: run over to the nearest ten birders and politely say: 'Excuse me, but I've just found a lovely Sprosser in that sallow clump over there!'

Step three is trickier. On each of those birders you quickly need to perform a non-touching Vulcan mind-meld. Once achieved, this is what you will discover...
  • Ten out of the ten will be delighted at the prospect of seeing a Thrush Nightingale.
  • Five out of the ten will be gutted they didn't find it first.
  • Three out of the ten will be struggling with a gag reflex and thinking very uncharitable thoughts because you called it a Sprosser.
Yes, the word Sprosser is a button-pusher. I'm not sure why. After all, der Sprosser (Luscinia luscinia) ist ein Singvogel aus der Familie der Fliegenschnäpper, und ist known by that very name right across...er...Germany. And (privately) by seven out of ten birders in random, very popular birding spots in the UK. But those other three hate it...

So here's a question. What is wrong with Sprosser? I am curious about why some of the names we use for birds appear almost universally acceptable, and some not. A few get sniffy about Bonxie instead of Great Skua, and more than a few when it comes to Tystie rather than Black Guillemot. Is it a quirky kind of snobbery? A judgement on what is and is not pretentious? Or cool? Something else?

And what about diminutives? I realise there are full-name pedants out there who simply cannot stoop to Lesser Spot, and will insist on all seven syllables of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker come what may, but they are few, and have my pity. Personally I am very comfortable with Mipit, but usually leave the other pipits as they are. I use Pied Fly, Spot Fly and RB Fly, but never Collared Fly (chance would be a fine thing) and see nothing wrong with Icky but don't really use it myself. Gropper always, also Barwit, Blackwit and LRP. I could go on ad infinitum, but you get the picture I'm sure. I use lots of diminutives and other colloquial names with easy familiarity. I don't feel awkward with them, or that I'm in some way forcing it, but I'm conscious that other birders might feel very differently about some of them. Yet there are many which I don't use, that I don't feel so comfortable with. Why is that? Fascinating...

A nice Melody I photographed on Scilly. Er...no... that's not one I use either.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Technology

Yesterday I stumbled across an article written by Andrew Moon for the 2015 London Bird Report. Entitled 'Reminiscences of a London Birder', it is a captivating read. In addition to recounting some memorable moments, Andrew documents some of the changes he has witnessed in 45 years of birding in the London area. One topic he touches upon is something easily taken for granted these days...

Technology.

When it comes to communication and photography in particular, technology has wrought changes unimaginable a few decades ago. And the impact on birding is huge. To illustrate...

In 1985 I found two Temminck's Stints at Staines Res. To put news out you needed two things: a stock of 10p coins, and a notebook containing all your contact numbers. Actually, three things. Also a working public telephone. Well, surprise, surprise...that day I needed just the numbers, because a fellow birder who fortuitously turned up at that moment was the proud owner of a car-phone! He didn't know me from Adam, but gave me the key to his BMW and sent me off, promising to keep an eye on the birds. I spent the first minute of each call in two-way exclamations of shock and awe. 'Seriously, I'm phoning you from some bloke's car!' 'Really?! ' 'Yes!' 'No-o-o!' 'Yes!'

And look at us now...

I wonder how many younger folk today realise what was involved in pre-digital photography? For example, as an ex-Kodak employee I can tell you that Kodacolor film comprised a polyester backing upon which was coated a pack of eleven (if memory serves...) microscopically thin, discrete layers. Colour paper needed a mere eight layers, on a resin-coated, waterproof base. In both film and paper manufacturing multiple layers were coated simultaneously, and each contained a cocktail of chemicals suspended in molten animal gelatin. Clever application of the laws of physics prevented the layers from mixing. This hot coating was then rapidly chilled and set, progressively dried and conditioned, then spooled up, wrapped, and finally shipped off to be slit and chopped into consumer-sized pieces. Being a light-sensitive product, all this was carried out in the dark!

Considering the process involved in its manufacture, and the fact that silver was a necessary ingredient among a host of expensive chemicals, it's little wonder that photographic film and paper was relatively pricey. And it only struck me recently, but how did a conscientious vegan cope with photography back then? Gelatin was unavoidable.

In terms of hardware, anyone aiming to photograph birds would need a single lens reflex camera (SLR) and a long lens. I can remember using a light meter in the early 80s, and focusing manually, and needing at least a basic grasp of photographic principles. My gear was seriously budget, but I'm not sure whether even the best equipment had automatic focus and exposure? Perhaps an aged photographer can enlighten me? Anyway, so you would twitch the mega-rarity, make a load of wild guesses involving knobs and dials on your camera, and after a right load of faff wind up with a film cartridge containing 36 (or, with a bit of luck, 37) exposures of your subject. And then there was a trip to the shop (usually a chemist) to hand your film in, and a few days of hand-wringing anxiety later the nervous return trip to empty your wallet in exchange for a sealed package. Before opening it you would first seek a quiet spot, then unpeel the flap with shaking fingers. Inside you would find your processed negatives and corresponding prints. Shuffling through them would invariably reveal 36 (or, with a bit of luck, 37) photographs of a streaky blur. Hence the quiet spot. In those days nobody wanted to see a grown man cry.

And look at us now...

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Super-Steve's Seaton Serin

The only previous Axe Patch Serin was a November bird which flew past Steve during an Axe Cliff viz-mig watch more than a decade ago. It was a right gripper at the time, and as the years have gone by it's also become something of a blocker. Of course in those days Steve used to go birding. Unlike now. Now Steve has a family, and a serious 9-to-5 job, and a conscientiously responsible attitude toward both. Birding-wise this is a killer. Back in the day Steve was finding rare birds every other week. The man was a machine, and his ridiculous find rate is sorely missed by Axe Patch birders. However, the fact that Steve now only gets five minutes birding a month was the first item on the agenda at a recent Rare & Scarce Birds Association meeting, where the committee quickly realised it was a problem they could work around...

So, Steve Waite. How are we going to handle this?
Well, as he only gets five minutes a month nowadays we need to think about giving him something when he's not birding. Any suggestions?
What about when he's walking to work?
Excellent idea! We need a volunteer...
[A female Serin raises a wing]
Thank you. Oh, and don't forget to call a few times; he won't have binoculars.

And so it was that our Serin waited patiently for Steve to walk by yesterday morning, and then made sure she caught his attention. Unfortunately she botched it a bit. First, she forgot to give the usual ripply trill type flight call, and went for a rather more off-piste nasally thing. Plus she gave rubbish flight views (leaving Steve with all the frustration of a 'probable' sighting) and didn't hang about for someone else to nail later in the day. It is unlikely she'll be entrusted with such an important mission in future.

Today was her last chance...

Steve and I met up shortly before 08:00 this morning and headed for the Riverside Way area of Seaton. Within minutes we had a small bird fly over us. It might have been a Serin, it might not. But you know how it is in such situations; in the absence of a better option you just follow it up. And as the bird appeared to have come down behind the little trading estate, that's where we headed...

Strolling along, chatting and looking, and occasionally raising our bins at a Robin or Dunnock or something, we reached a corner and stopped, still nattering. Hmm...nothing. Suddenly a small bird popped out of the weeds and perched a few feet up in a spindly young tree, flashing a bright yellow rump en route! Both of us had caught it, and in unison exclaimed: 'That's it!' Sure enough, despite multiple obscuring twigs, we could see our prize - a streaky little female Serin - peering at us. Steve reminded me I had a camera, so I fumbled it out and got a few shots before the bird flew. And when it did fly it let rip with a short burst of classic Serin trill. Perfect!

Here are the best two photos. Almost identical, but not quite...

A beady eye and a stubby little bill. Quite clever how the P900 can thread its way through all those twigs and focus on the bird. Very pleasing.
A tiny bit more rump visible in this shot, and some yellow wash on the head too.

Unfortunately that was it, performance-wise. And despite quite a few birders out looking, the next sighting wasn't until about 13:00. I spent some time this morning trying to relocate it, and was rewarded with a bonus Black Redstart on the SE corner of the Tesco housing estate...

Black Redstart. Another full zoom, hand-held pic.

Finally, both the Serin pics above have been colour-corrected, so to speak. In reality we were blessed with a lovely bit of early-morning sunshine, but of course that gives everything an incredibly warm glow. It is beautiful, but kind of overpowers the subtle yellow bits on the bird. Here's the top image, with the original lighting...

Sumptuously sun-soaked Seaton Serin

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

While the Sun Shines...

I'm glad work takes me to the Seaton area. I would miss it otherwise, and probably have to find another excuse to visit. Pulling up at Coronation Corner shortly before midday I was delighted to see a lot of gulls. I even counted them (that's a first!) - the big ones anyway - and made it at least 1500. Almost all Herring Gulls. I couldn't face counting the hundreds of small ones though. My lunchtime sifting produced one measly Med Gull, which was pretty poor return for what must have been the best part of 3,000 gulls. Interestingly a mid-afternoon visit revealed a little arrival of Med Gulls, and I counted at least 10. Also there was a steady trickle of big gulls dropping in. Yet overall numbers looked the same or less, suggesting a turnover of birds. I think this quite often happens with the Axe gull population, and is part of the reason for my addiction to the darned things. Almost anything could have arrived since you had a look ten minutes ago, so you simply have to check them again. And again! Etc...

Today's star birds were actually ducks...

Four lovely Pintail. Pretty scarce on the Axe or its marshes.

When it comes to looks, drake Pintail are one of my favourites, so I was chuffed to spot these two pairs chugging up the river N of Coronation Corner. They eventually settled down over by the far bank, sheltering from the cold, blasting NW wind. I sypathised. It was pretty raw.

Near perfection in a duck.

After lunch I went hunting for a bird Steve had seen early this morning. A probable Serin had accosted him on his way to work. Knowing that he was without optics it chose to give him the most tantalising performance it could get away with...bar allowing him to nail it! Unfortunately I couldn't find it, and had to make do with a friendly Stonechat instead...

Nikon P900 at 1600mm zoom...
...and at full 2000mm zoom. Hand-held. ISO400, 1/320sec.

I am so pleased with this camera. I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again: many thanks to those who responded to my 'What camera should I get?' query back in October. I'm very glad I paid attention to the recommendations. The user-friendly versatility of the P900, plus the quality of its images, has added another level of enjoyment to my birding. Which brings me to something else...

On and off, NQS has been going since 2008. Although the earlier two incarnations are no longer extant, I can safely say that neither were ever as prolific as this one currently is. Since I posted 'My Happy Bird' on October 4th last year I've published 73 posts in four months (124 days) which is a bit more than one post every other day. I feel weirdly rejuvenated, with a new-found enthusiasm for both birding and writing. I cannot explain it. However, this prolificity (what a cool word!) is not totally out of character, and a pessimistic little voice in my head is telling me it won't last. Ah well... While the sun still shines, I shall make hay...

Monday, 3 February 2020

Getting There Eventually

Finding the occasional decent gull in a sizeable flock is always rewarding, and sometimes pretty exciting. But there is potentially a serious drawback...

Understandably that gull will immediately get my full attention. Then the camera comes out, and I'll be doing my best to capture as varied a set of poses as possible. 'What's wrong with that?' you may ask. Well, this all takes time, and if that gull grabbed my attention early on, chances are the rest of the flock hasn't been checked properly, if at all. I might easily be tied up with a lovely Caspian Gull, while an American Herring Gull is ten yards to the left, entirely neglected. I think this is a major failing of mine. I know I do it, but can't seem to help myself. I spot the good gull, and it's 'Hello-o-o. What's this...? Ooh! Quick! Get the scope on it! Where's my camera?!' I realise it's all out of fear my prize will fly away the second I take my eye off it, but it is not good, and will one day cost me dear. If it hasn't already...

I mention this for a reason. Last Tuesday's Axe Casp had me preoccupied for a considerable time. Eventually I managed to tear myself away and look at other birds, and one of them quickly caught my eye. I thought it was a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull, so called Richard over to see it, then had a go at some photos. It was preening, and I got about a dozen shots before it simply upped and left. Here's one of them...

Bit of a bruiser

Okay, first of all this is not actually a Yellow-legged Gull. Any gull buffs reading this will probably have spotted my noddy error. Anyway, here's how my thinking went at the time...

  • Those fresh grey scapulars are way too dark for Herring Gull. Must be YLG.
  • The fact that it's got grey scaps = 2nd-winter
  • Lack of grey median coverts = retarded 2nd-winter. 
  • Whitish head/dark eye patch combo = YLG

By the way, that last point fits 1st-winter Yellow-legged but not 2nd-winter. More faulty thinking. Sigh...

So you're getting some insight into how my mind works when presented with a gull that I have to think about. It's not pretty. I make some glorious cock-ups.

Well then, what is this gull??

Another photo...

See those very pale inner primaries? A big clue. 

The darkish grey scapulars suggest three options: YLG, argentatus Herring Gull, or Herring x LBBG hybrid. The pale inner primaries rule out YLG. So that's one down. Hybrids tend to be smallish birds, and this beast is a right hefty lump. So not a hybrid. Which leaves one option. And that's what I reckon this bird is: a 2nd-winter argentatus Herring Gull. I suppose a process of elimination isn't the best way to ID birds, but it has its uses. To be fair, everything I can see in my photos appears to fit that conclusion, so I'm happy to go with it. Interestingly though, argentatus HG is rare in Devon. I've seen more Casps by a long way.

One last photo, with a couple of regular argenteus HGs to illustrate its brutish proportions...

An impressive bird. 

Finally, a quick word of thanks to Steve Waite and Josh Jones for help with this one. Much appreciated.