Thursday, 30 April 2020

Nocmig - the Story After 4 Weeks

Four weeks ago today, I was tempted to sit out in the garden after dark and listen for migrating Common Scoter. I gave it two hours from about 22:45, probably a bit too late really, and predictably heard none. So, why did I do it? What made me have a go, no matter how improbable it might seem to expect flocks of Common Scoter to fly over my garden at night? Twitter was the reason. The reports from birders far and wide that Common Scoter were indeed being heard at night, and in numbers too. I thought it would be pretty cool to get the species on my garden list.

Not my garden. Not at night. Photo depicts Common Scoter making big error.


And that is exactly how trouble usually starts. Small. Innocent. A mild curiosity, that sort of thing...

I tried again the following night, in fact the next two or three, and heard nothing. But the very fact that I was sitting out there in the dark, all wrapped up against the chill, speaks volumes. Yep, I was in trouble...

Of course, I had heard of nocmig, and was aware of its potential, but for reasons I've touched on in earlier posts, I wanted none of it. And yet, look at me now.

On Monday, April 6th I ordered a digital recorder, the Zoom H4n Pro. That same night I once again settled in for a spell of naked nocmig. And a Moorhen flew over, calling loudly! After literally hours of nothing, this common bird had somehow contrived to put a smile on my face out of all proportion to its status. I was absolutely delighted. So the next night I tried a simple smartphone app for recording speech (Tape-a-Talk) and heard Moorhen twice, capturing one call on my phone. By this stage obviously I was doomed...

On April 10th the recorder arrived, and on Monday 13th it was powered up and left out for its first night of action. It didn't go well. We call this 'teething troubles'. To be honest I did wonder if I'd bitten off more than I could chew, but here we are just over two weeks later and things are looking altogether more promising.

I'm not really one for careful record-keeping, so cannot quickly tell you how many nights I've been recording, how many hours, how many of those hours have been nakedly monitored too, or anything else connected with commendable accuracy. Because I am very, very slack about such stuff. However, what I have been doing is carefully reviewing each night's recording and clipping out all the bird calls. So I can fairly easily report my findings so far. And here they are...

I've excluded stationary stuff like our local Tawny Owls, Robins, Herring Gulls etc. The first number refers to number of calls/sets of calls, not birds.

Barn Owl. At least 9 (at least 5 nights). Considering I had no clue that we had local birds, this is a biggie for me.
Coot. 2 (2 nights). One I heard naked and initially overlooked as Moorhen (but picked up on review), the other I mistook for Little Ringed Plover. Coots can pretend to be almost any other bird, it seems.
Dunlin. 2 (2 nights).
Grey Heron. 1, mega-loud.
Mallard. 5 (2 nights).
Moorhen. 11 (9 nights). So Moorhen turns out to be a regular, but always makes me smile.
Nightjar. 1. A massive 'Wow!' moment. I even identified it correctly by ear.
Oystercatcher. 2 (2 nights).
Ringed Plover. 3 (2 nights).
Stone-curlew. 1. A great story of unfolding amazement as the culprit responsible for this incredible call was revealed.
Turnstone. 1, which again I mistook for LRP, a species which has so far resisted my efforts to string it.
Whimbrel. 10 (4 nights) including at least one flock, and an amazing burst of song.

My simultaneous naked nocmig efforts have detected six of those species - Barn Owl, Coot, Mallard, Moorhen, Nightjar and Whimbrel. All except Mallard are garden ticks.

I don't know how many other local (or local-ish) birders are nocmigging right now, but in Budleigh Salterton to the west, Chris Townend has also detected Stone-curlew and Nightjar, and to the east in Weymouth, Joe Stockwell has recorded Nightjar too.

Clearly, here in Bridport things are not fast and furious, but in a way I am glad not to be faced with dozens and dozens of calls to analyse after each session. At this early stage I'm happy to have just a few to puzzle over. Mind you, I'm getting pretty good at Moorhen.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Executing Plan B

This winter just gone was the wettest I can remember, certainly since Mrs NQS and I have been living in this part of the country. To say I was looking forward to some fine spring weather is an understatement. I was gagging for it. Spring was the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. I had plans for spring. Lots and lots of plans.

And then coronavirus happened...

I would imagine that every NQS reader has likewise had their lovingly-laid plans derailed by this horrible pandemic. Whether birder, angler or all-round naturalist, our freedom to explore and enjoy even our local countryside has been heavily constrained. I hate it, and I expect you do too. So, what to do? Well, when plan A is no longer viable, the obvious alternative is...er...plan B...

I didn't have a plan B. Did you?

If I'm honest I guess my plan B is still in the process of being formulated, but seems basically to revolve around these two fundamentals: keeping sane, and keeping stimulated.

Regarding the first one, to be fair I do not actually fear for my sanity. But from comments I see on social media it is clear that some of my fellow birders/anglers/naturalists have genuine struggles here. Our countryside, its wild things, and our liberty to enjoy them are recognised antidotes to the stresses and strains of life, so the limitations imposed upon us by lockdown are going to take a toll. Personally, I have to find a way of focusing not on the limitations, but on the alternative possibilities. Distractions help - and I hope to explore that aspect in another post - and, for me, challenges also.

A challenge keeps me from boredom, keeps me stimulated. But obviously not any old challenge - it has to interest me. As you can tell from recent NQS output, nocmig is nicely filling this role right now. So is the #BWKM0 challenge, and adding to my garden list has been an entertaining, if slow, enterprise. I have other, more prosaic challenges involving things like making a few improvements to our little garden, stuff like that, and I'd quite like to write about it at some stage too. You get the picture...

So, is plan B working?

I would say that mostly, it is. Mostly. As I type, the wind is getting up, and the Met Office is forecasting some potentially good seawatching weather. I am not at liberty to drive to my favourite seawatching spots and give free reign to skua lust. Especially not Pomarine Skua lust. Which means I must find a way to focus, as I said, not on the limitations, but on the alternative possibilities. Not easy, but I'm trying!

Yes, plan B is a 'work in progress'...

No, no, NO! Think about something else!

Monday, 27 April 2020

Ortolan

Today I've been reading the Sound Approach article on Ortolan Bunting, which can be found online HERE. It is absolutely fascinating. It relates to the nocturnal detection of migrant Ortolans by practitioners of nocmig, with special reference to occurences in Dorset. Perhaps you can guess why I might be interested in this...

I have a soft spot for Ortolan Bunting. Partly this is because I was fortunate enough to co-find the only two Axe patch birds, but also because it's a species with which I have history. It features in my very early days of proper birding, initially not in a good way.

It is early autumn of 1981, and Mrs NQS and I are in Norfolk. We've had a great time in the last week or two, with Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Spotted Crake and Black Guillemot in recent visits to the Cley area, all lifers for us newbies. Today we're at the Holme NNT reserve, and can see this birder peering at us through his bins. Then he gestures. Naturally we stroll over to see what he wants. He doesn't want anything; he'd been trying to direct our attention to the bushes just behind us, in which was perched an Ortolan. Now gone. We're a bit disappointed of course, but not overly concerned. Perhaps we'll see it later? We don't. Never mind though. Surely we'll connect with Ortolan Bunting any day now...

Three years later I'm enjoying my first trip to Scilly. Ortolan is by now a bogey bird. News comes through of two Ortolans together at Rocky Hill, and finally I meet my nemesis. Squinting through a hedge meant views were less than brilliant, but I didn't care. Ortolan Bunting. Tick. And I was highly impressed with their smartness. Distinctive. Understated. Very cool.

A couple of days later a Dusky Warbler was found on Tresco, at Borough Farm. Another lifer, I was straight in there with the crowds. Boy, that bird made us wait. But I didn't mind, because there were some first-class distractions, including Red-breasted Flycatcher and Melodious Warbler. At one point I was standing next to this guy when a small bird flew over our heads and called. 'Ortolan!' he exclaimed. It looped round and pitched into a very small furrowed field right in front of us. Sure enough, an Ortolan it was. I was so impressed. How on earth had this bloke been able to identify such a scarce bird by its call?! Well, happily, since that day I too have had reason to note the flight call of an Ortolan Bunting once or twice, and transcribe it into my notebook. 'Tlip' is what I wrote, once adding: 'quite soft; not as 'ticky' as Yellowhammer.' The Sound Approach guys transcibe it as 'plik'. Close enough.

The first Ortolan I found, I actually didn't find. It was spring 1989 I think, on Scilly again. On the west side of Peninnis Head was a patch of ground which for some reason was a magnet for Wheatears, and which I'd checked several times during our stay. One day I found an Ortolan in there with the Wheatears. As you can imagine, I was over the moon! And then I learned that another birder had seen it the day before...

So anyway, here we are in 2020, and nowadays birders don't actually need to see their Ortolans any more. Particularly in Dorset. Excellent. I'll have some of that please. By early autumn I will hopefully have honed my nocmigging skills a bit, and genned up on Ortolan calls. Whether it goes 'plik', 'pluk', 'tew', 'tslew', 'tsrp', 'puw', 'tup', or 'vin', I shall be ready. Ortolan on the garden list. It's got to be done. The Dorset birder is otherwise not complete...

I always like to include some sort of picture in a blog post, but my old Axe patch colleagues are no doubt rolling their eyes at this point, suspecting that I shall be unable to resist trotting out that Beer Head Ortolan photo yet aga-a-a-ain. Well, I have resisted the temptation, and instead will include a screenshot of part of the description I sent in...

'Smile emoji' right here.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Learning New Things

I will admit to not being that great at bird calls. Despite the fact that very often it's a vocalisation which first draws my attention to a bird, what I see with my eye is what normally dominates proceedings. I suspect that many birders operate this way. Which is why nocmig really has me stumbling in the...er...dark. First of all, I am discovering that my mental library of readily-identifiable bird sounds is much smaller than I would like. Secondly, when you are presented with just a vocalisation, and no context to put it in, it can be surprisingly difficult to identify the culprit. For example, when you are out birding and hear a single, clear 'peoo' call, and see that it's coming from a small plover flying overhead, it's dead easy to identify it as one of the Little Ringed variety. A single, clear 'peoo' on your nocmig recording is a different matter. Believe me, I know. What I tentatively identified as LRP was in fact a Turnstone. Comparing the two calls it is quite easy to hear the difference, so perhaps I really must be a bit useless, mucking that one up. What can I say? Still, I wonder if some other birders might be in the same boat as me...?

Anyway, here's another cock-up...

A couple of posts ago I published the original version of this spectrogram, and the recording that went with it...


And I added that I must have completely missed this astonishing Curlew call, because almost certainly I was outside, listening, at the time. I'm going to be honest here, and confess that finding this belter on the night's spectrogram was the main reason I am now very carefully logging any 'out-loud' playing of bird calls while I'm in the garden, naked-nocmigging, because I found it so hard to believe that I didn't hear this. Racked with doubt, I cast my mind back to the previous evening. Had I played some random Xeno Canto recording of Curlew for some reason? Had the microphone picked it up? And was that what I was looking at here? Well, the answer was no to all, but it had me worried. With hindsight, it turns out I was almost certainly not outside, but indoors when this bird went over.

However, the main reason I am revisiting this incident is because it is actually not a Curlew! Be truthful, dear reader. Did you listen to the lovely recording and say to yourself, 'Hmm, Gav has cocked this one up big time. That is so obviously a nice bit of Whimbrel song!'? Because that is indeed what this is - a singing Whimbrel! I am grateful to Chris Batty for pointing that out for me, and doubly gutted that I never actually heard it.

So, certainly I am learning new things regarding bird vocalisations, and my pitiful knowledge of them. Anything else? Yes...

This morning, and again this afternoon, I stood in the garden, sky-watching, for quite a long time. I notched up two new #BWKM0 ticks - Lesser Black-backed Gull and Peregrine - and enjoyed great views of two lingering Red Kites, a few Swifts, House Martins and Swallows. What I didn't see, and would never in a million years expect to, were any Moorhens, Barn Owls, Whimbrel, Ringed Plovers, Stone-curlews or Nightjars. However, I now know that all those are realistic expectations after dark. Admittedly, a couple may be less 'expectation' and more 'hope', but you get the point. Three weeks ago I didn't know that.

Very, very much I am learning new things about what flies over my garden during the course of a 24-hour day. And I am loving that.

I realise that some birders are not interested in getting involved with nocmig because it means buying kit, and investing time and energy which perhaps cannot be spared. To some extent that was me, until the coronavirus lockdown. Plus, because I'm lazy, I didn't fancy the inevitable learning curve. So, 'not interested thanks' I get, one hundred percent. However, with nocmig there also seems to be something else. Am I imagining it, or are some birders a bit scathing about it? Hopefully I am imagining that. Because although nocmig may be a minority pursuit right now, and still in relative infancy, there is surely no doubt that it is opening our eyes to birdy stuff that we had no idea was happening. It's turning what we knew into what we thought we knew. And in my book, that's exciting.

And finally, on a less provocative note, some flight shots from this afternoon's sky-watching...

Buzzard
Red Kite
Swift. This photo gives me hope that if I'm ever jammy enough to find an Alpine Swift, there could in theory be a record shot to prove it,
Red Kite. Overhead, and away...

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Sonic Boom!

In the early hours of yesterday morning, Joe Stockwell recorded a Nightjar flying over his house in Rodwell, Weymouth. That's quite a few miles E of Bridport, but it gives an indication of what is possible during a night's nocmigging. On the recording there are a couple of calls - the typical 'k'vik' type noise that you might hear after dark on a mozzie-infested southern heath in early summer - plus some pukka 'churring'. Amazing. The recording is quiet, but very evocative, and several times yesterday I held my phone right up to my ear and played it, slightly envious.

So anyway, last night I settled into my comfy fishing chair under a cloudy sky, hopeful of a bit of nocmig action in the overcast conditions. All was calm and quiet...

Yesterday was a tea night. No booze, just a mug of black Chai and some gingernuts. Dunked and sucked gingernuts. I mentioned recently that I now keep a running log of nocmig happenings on my phone. If I hear something, it goes in the log; if I go indoors, it goes in the log; etc. It has proved very handy already. The first few entries for 24th April read thus...

20:58 Played Stone-curlew twice! [Hopefully it's obvious why I keep track of bird calls I'm playing out loud!]
21:14 Whimbrel?
21:29 Nightjar?
21:39 Played Joe's Nightjar recording
21:40 - 21:43 indoors
22:03 Played Joe's Nightjar recording again
and so on...

Yep. At 21:29 I'm sitting there, relishing the silence, and clearly hear three distinct 'k'vik' calls; two close together, a brief pause, then another. They sound almost overhead, and I can easily make out that hoarse, frog-in-the-throat quality.

To be honest I was in slight shock, and probably sat there with my mouth open. Had I not listened to a Nightjar recording several times in the previous few hours I am pretty sure it would have been a case of 'Ooh, what was that? I know it...I'm sure I know it...I've definitely heard it before...but what the heck is it?!'

In the event, it was 'Aaaagghh!! That has got to be a Nightjar!!'

But then silence again. That was it, all over in a few seconds. And without my newly-purchased nocmig kit, that really would have been it. No way could I have claimed a Nightjar over my garden at night, based on three calls.

So, very, very early this morning - before my Saturday walk - I was in the cabin, zeroing in on one specific bit of the night's spectrogram...

And there it was, a group of three blips, pretty strong ones too. I played it back. And again. There was hardly any need to check it on Xeno Canto, but I did anyway. Actually, slight disbelief was the reason I suppose. And then finally I noticed something which initially had passed me by. I could hear, between the second and third call, a very, very faint snatch of 'churring'. And it is just about detectable on the spectrogram...

'Churring' quite hard to see. Or hear. Just trust me.

Here's what it sounded like...



Also last night, the Whimbrel I heard, plus another I didn't. Also Turnstone, Ringed Plover, two very faint Barn Owl shrieks and a possible Tree Pipit, all on the recording only. Turnstone and Tree Pipit would be new for the garden. Nocmig is such an eye-opener.

This morning's walk was uneventful, but there are clearly a few more regular warblers on territory, with Blackcaps and Whitethroats more evident, and four singing Lesser Whitethroats. Plus 8 Wheatears...



This afternoon I finally got Sand Martin for the BWKM0 list, and a couple of Swifts. With the Nightjar I have made it to the giddy heights of 49. What will be number 50?

I think it's going to be a clear sky tonight. I'm not expecting much from the naked nocmig effort, and may retire a bit earlier than normal. But I don't care. Stone-curlew and Nightjar! Oof! I can rest on those laurels, quite happily.

Also, tonight is a booze night. Very definitely, tonight is a booze night. There is beer, and a fresh bottle of single malt. Bring it on...

Friday, 24 April 2020

Why Sleeping is Bad

Back on 18th April I discovered that a Barn Owl had shrieked into my nocmig kit during the early hours. I had absolutely no clue that Barn Owls lived anywhere nearby, and the species would not even have featured on a 'garden possibles' list. And yet there it was, loud as you like, plus another faint and distant shriek 48 seconds later. Since then my aim has been to hear one with my ears and therefore legitimately be able to count it on my garden list. The quest was on...

Last night one called at 23:23, while I was outside on a naked nocmig vigil. However, I didn't actually hear it. I was asleep. Unfortunately I am now familiar with the spectrogram trace produced by my snore, and its regular four-second repeat pattern. To be fair, the Barn Owl was evidently quite distant, and possibly I wouldn't have heard it anyway. In the end it didn't matter though, because the previous night at 22:36, I did hear a faint shriek. Just the one. 'Ooh! Surely that was a Barn Owl?' I thought, straining hard to hear another call...which never came. So yesterday morning I was eager to review the night's file. Sure enough, along with a bit of traffic noise, there was a now-familiar splurge at 2.0 kHz.

Just to be sure, I spliced it together with my previous Barn Owl calls (the loud one and the very faint one) and made this little composition...



And this is what it all sounds like...



I realise this may all smack of desperation, but do I care? These are strange times, and in such times you've got to do whatever you've got to do in order to squeeze new birds onto your #BWKM0 list. No shame in that. None.

The same night which gave me the garden-tick Barn Owl at 22:36 also produced this at 21:20...

Just one glance and you know this is going to sound great!


That is one super-cool spectrogram. Predictably, the real thing does not disappoint...



As I mentioned, this flew over at 21:20. In theory I was sitting outside at this point, all ears. In reality I may not have been. I have tried to remember if I'd maybe popped indoors to get a beer or make a cup of tea, or for some other inane and stupid reason, but cannot. Whatever the case, the fact remains that I did not hear that astonishing Curlew call. I cannot quite believe it, but there it is. By the way, that's another one which made me laugh out loud when I played it. I really hope the novelty doesn't wear off too quickly, because I am very much enjoying this bizarre new world.

Anyway, since then I have taken to keeping a running log of what I'm up to while naked nocmigging. Last night, for example: '21:59-22:04 indoors'. If I miss another belter I want to know why. The only thing I cannot log are my involuntary snoozing times...but I can just look for the snore pattern on the spectrogram later.

Finally, a comment on the Portland Bird Observatory website reminded me how our migrant Wheatears change a bit as spring advances, with the later birds (those generally destined for more northern climes like Iceland and Greenland) being a bit larger and more richly coloured. So I made a little collage of some of the Wheatears I have photographed so far this year, to see if anything was evident just yet. See what you think...



Personally I am undecided. Possibly one or two of the earlier birds are a bit of a colder grey on top and less peachy below, or perhaps it's all down to the light. Whatever, eight different Wheatears in a single image is a wonderful thing, and who cares what lame excuse gave rise to its birth?

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Nocmig Mega!

All this nocmig shenanigans must be an entertaining sideshow for many birders, as one after another of us falls prey to its allure. Will it turn out to be just a fad? Will we all get bored with it when proper birding is on the table again? Or will our initial curiosity grow into something more profound, a genuine interest? Right now I am a nocmig advocate, no question. I am thoroughly enjoying it. Let me explain why...

Last night I sat out until about 23:40. I am now equipped with a fleece blanket for my legs. Like an old person. Apart from a couple of half-hearted Tawny Owl efforts I heard absolutely nowt. Not bird-wise anyway. Reviewing the recording this morning though, I came across this at 00:39...



Even I cannot muck that one up. It's unquestionably a Heron. More specifically, a Grey Heron. I imagine it could hardly be louder or more directly overhead. If only I'd done another hour, it could have gone on my BWKM0 list. Mind you, I've had the occasional fly-by Heron before, so I didn't miss out on a garden tick.

Actually, it's a good job I'm not a particularly list-oriented birder, or I'd have been weeping all over my toast about the next one.

Let me tell you how it is when you're reviewing the night's 'catch' in Audacity...

Basically you sit there, pressing the '>' key on your keyboard repeatedly, and scanning your eyes over the latest 25 seconds-worth of blank spectrogram for any interesting-looking blips and squiggles. Ideally you should probably do 10-second segments, but it takes me an age as it is. So, another 25 seconds of nothing. And another. And another. And suddenly, out of the blue, this...

Okay, only 11 seconds-worth, but you get the idea.

Out loud I said words. Probably 'Wow! Look at that!' or similar. Because straight away you know you've got something good. Plus, you know it's going to be loud. Nothing faint and wishy-washy about that trace. So I played it. I played it and actually laughed out loud. It was so ridiculously wild that I couldn't help myself! I thought: 'That thing flew right over my garden last night, and if I'd been sitting there at 01:13 I'd have heard it. Amazing!!'

I also thought: 'What the heck is it?!'

Here it is...



What's your first thought? Mine was Oystercatcher. It didn't seem quite right, but to my ear it had that kind of quality. It wasn't the steady (and obvious) series of single notes that I recorded the other night, but perhaps it was an excited Oystercatcher? I tried to find a match on Xeno Canto, but to no avail. I also researched Redshank, the other wader which came to mind. Nope, nothing encouraging there either. So I posted it to the Nocmig WhatsApp group. One or two suggested I check Avocet, which blew me away slightly. I would never have considered Avocet, but it's not a call I'm familiar with at all, so I did check. Again, there were similarities, but unless you were listening to a flock it was always a repeated single note, nothing with the triple-note call you can clearly hear from the bird in question. And it really does sound like one bird, not several.

And then someone said Stone-curlew. In fact a couple suggested Stone-curlew. And sure enough, among the many and varied noises which a night-time Stone-curlew can produce, that triple-note job is right there. Bingo!

The notion of Avocets flying over my garden was crazy enough, but Stone-curlew is just bonkers! And virtually overhead too I should think. I don't care that I cannot count it on my garden list (though the garden can!) because that's not what motivates me here. What keeps me doing this, and hopefully will continue to do so, are basically these two things:
  • The fascination of it all. What other mad birds fly over here at night? And how often?
  • The learning aspect. Nocmigging has revealed how woeful is my grasp of vocalisations, and I am really enjoying the humiliation.
Having said that, maybe it is just a passing fancy which will fizzle out when the lockdown ends. But I really hope not, because it has added another level to an already compelling hobby.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Bring Me Sunshine...

Several months ago I mentioned on Twitter that I was looking to upgrade my camera, and asked for any thoughts on the Nikon Coolpix P900, and for any other recommendations. I duly ended up buying the Nikon. Today another birder did likewise, and I was able to offer some feedback from my own experience. This is one of the aspects of social media that I find dead useful. I have learned absolutely loads of handy stuff from birders I am never likely to meet, simply by being part of this network of virtual mates. Anyway, that's probably for another post one day...

For now though, just look at what the P900 can do when you give it a decent bit of light to play with. All these from this morning...

My first Lesser Whitethroat of the year. 1200mm equivalent, hand-held
And going for it. Rattling away like a good 'un!

Clearly I wasn't so close that it was spooked, and in fact these are around 50% crops. I am well chuffed with them, especially that side-on view.

Also, my first Whinchat of the year. This was pretty distant, and it's a heavy crop of a 2000mm equivalent focal length, also hand-held...

Whinchat. Perfectly acceptable record shot as far as I'm concerned.

And almost finally, Wheatears again. We all know how spooky they are, especially in spring it seems, and these were definitely not crawling all over my feet. The first is at 1200mm, the rest at 1600mm, again hand-held.

A nice male Wheatear...
And again, a little bigger


And finally, two different females...



Last, but by no means least, a lovely adder...

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Another World

One thing that night fishing taught me years ago is that the world between sunset and dawn is a very different one. Shy creatures venture out, sounds are different - and amplified - and your fishing mates use the cover of darkness for massive pranks they wouldn't dare undertake in daylight. Still today, on a warm summer night I really enjoy lying under the stars on a bedchair, savouring the heady bouquet of waterside smells, gazing up at the myriad sparkly dots and listening to the noises. Among the noises are always many birds...

Sitting in the garden is not quite the same, though booze helps. And we have a little raised pond with a handful of rudd which occasionally splish-splosh on the surface. Yesterday evening was not too cold, so I stuck it until midnight. Among the birdy noises were two audible Whimbrel, at 21:43 and 22:12. Pukka garden tick! Yes! Then I went to bed and left the recorder running...

As the light fades and the nocmig tools emerge...

This afternoon I went through what I'd got. Here's the second Whimbrel...



I also found another Whimbrel that I hadn't heard, and this, which sounds suspiciously like a flock...



In my defense, I did pop indoors once or twice, to refresh my glass, get snacky stuff, things like that...so it is perfectly feasible that I may have been out of earshot when this happened. But wow! A flock of Whimbrel went trundling over my garden last night! This is brilliant!

Anyway, not long after I went to bed, this happened. The background 'noise' is a bit harsh, but attempts to filter it out a bit also reduced the call's raspiness. Not loud, but hopefully I've got the ID correct...



I am pretty sure that's a Dunlin, which is the 4th wader species on my nocmig list.

I'm not sure which is more fun, checking through the recording time where I had also listened, or the bit where I was asleep. I must admit, suddenly coming across a whacking great set of unexpected squiggles and blobs on the spectrogram is exciting. What's it going to be? Like the recent Barn Owl and Oystercatcher, for example. But I can't say I enjoy getting gripped off by a little black box.

It's an entertaining dilemma to have though...

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Nocmig Revelations!

Right, I'm going to knock this post out pronto, because I've got somewhere to be when it gets dark.

Outside.

Last night it was a bit rainy for a while after sunset, and I was quite happy pootling around indoors, writing the carpy post. Which I enjoyed doing. Enjoyed a lot. But...it cost me. I didn't know quite how high was the price until this morning when I reviewed last night's nocmiggage. Oof! Honestly, this nogmig lark is a proper revelation. I am pretty sure that all three of the birds featured in the following 'spectrovids' would have succumbed to a 'naked' effort, had I been sitting outside with a nice glass of wine as per normal. Certainly the first two, because they are simply deafening. The third species featured is a lot quieter, but this was one of about five calls recorded. All of this action went on prior to what wastrels like me would call 'bedtime'. So, basically, last night I threw away three massive garden ticks...


1. Oystercatcher

This beaut is audible for well over a minute. You can hear it approach, get closer, attempt to pluck the mic from its bracket, and fade away into the distance. Mega!



2. Barn Owl

Seriously?! I had absolutely no idea that Barn Owls lived anywhere near my house. I do now! On the recording you can hear another call, 48 seconds after this one, faint and distant. Blown away is what I am!



3. Ringed Plover

This was trickier. It's fairly quiet, and I almost missed this, the first call of about five on the spectrogram, but on spotting it and playing it back my first thought was Ringed Plover, and it was gratifying to have it confirmed by Xeno Canto recordings (and spectrograms) as well as more experienced nocmig ears on the WhatsApp group. Ringed Plover over my house! Mad!



There was also a massive and delightful Moorhen event (plus a smaller, more distant one). This was only my third effort at this game, and I could not have asked for a more convincing set of results to persuade me to persevere. Yes, I know it's a bit fringe. Yes, there are all kinds of listing issues. Yes, you couldn't possibly do this, proper birding, moth-trapping, and have a life. But come on! Just listen to those recordings. Wow!!

Friday, 17 April 2020

Carp Tales

There's been this 'hashtag' thing on Twitter just lately: #MeAt20. You simply post a photograph of yourself aged 20. For me this means 1979/80 vintage, and I duly posted a pic I've used on NQS in the past, of me with a barbel from the Royalty Fishery on the Hampshire Avon at Christchurch. It dates from the very last day of the 1970s, and therefore nicely satisfies the #MeAt20 hashtag criteria. However, I came across another photo which is even better, because I can get a blog post out of it.

Many readers will know that my first love was coarse fishing, not birding. From the age of five I was obsessed with the fishy contents of every pond, lake, river, stream, canal and ditch that I encountered, and as time went on I gradually became better and better at catching them. But one species always remained an enigma. Carp. Carp had this reputation for being almost impossible to catch, and throughout my boyhood years, and on into my teens, I do not recall ever seeing one on the bank. Certainly I never caught one, and neither did I see anyone else do so. And then, in the summer of 1979, a few weeks after I had turned 20, a little carp in the River Colne at Tolpits Lane accidentally picked up a bait I had cast out for chub...

I know. You'd think I'd look a bit happier to have caught my first carp...

I won't say this was a watershed moment, because it wasn't; I didn't suddenly become obsessed with catching more carp, bigger ones. Back in the late '70s/early '80s the reality was that carp were nothing like as widespread and universally available as they are today, and catching big ones by design was, frankly, out of my league. Nevertheless, most of my angling back then was based in the Colne Valley, and a London Anglers Association water I regularly fished definitely held a small head of big carp, one of them huge! We had seen them. As incompetent teenagers in the mid-'70s we had cast floating crust at them. We had watched them laugh at us and melt away like wraiths. And so it was that Springwell Lake became the scene of a concerted effort to catch a big carp. It was the closed season of 1981. I was married by this time, but Mrs NQS tolerantly indulged my regular pre-baiting trips to the lake. Butterbeans were the secret weapon. Butterbeans! What was I thinking?! Anyway, June 16th dawned, the first day of the coarse fishing season, and I had caught nowt. Against the rules (no night fishing!) my rods had been out since midnight, along with those of at least two other anglers. In the morning I packed up and walked round to see how they'd got on...

16th June, 1981. This lovely common carp weighed 13 pound something, and fell to sweetcorn.

This was the first Springwell carp I had witnessed on the bank, and to say I was green with envy would be understating things. It was gorgeous. I don't know the angler's name, but I hated him immediately. Obviously.

Anyway, 1981 was also the year in which the birding bug bit, and my fishing tackle was eventually all sold.

So the rest of the '80s, and many of the '90s, were the years in which I made a name for myself as a really mediocre birder, and it wasn't until my old mate Roy proposed me for membership of the Ricky Cons Club (aka Rickmansworth Conservative Angling Society) that carp once again featured on the agenda...

I always felt a bit of a fraud as a Cons member. The Cons Club was (and is) a carp angler's Mecca. I wasn't a proper carp angler. Proper carp anglers would give their eye teeth for a Cons ticket. I was just jammy. I even caught a few...

August 1999. My first Cons carp. A 19lb rocket.

September '99. This nice mirror weighed 23lb

By the end of the 1999/2000 season my biggest Cons carp weighed 28-something. It was a supremely ugly fish, which my son Rob still pokes fun at today, so I shan't sully this blog with it. The following season was my best, and also my last really, as far as proper effort goes...

September 2000, and 35lb 9oz of absolute carpy perfection.

This was my biggest. There are certain carp which have a kind of mythical status in the carp angling world. Named after a fish farmer called Donald Leney, the 'Leney' strain were stocked into many lakes from pre-WW2 onwards, including some in the Colne Valley. They have a certain 'look', and this cracker is about the closest I ever got to one. It might be a Leney, it might not, but I don't care. The whole experience of catching it is forever etched in a part of my brain reserved for happy stuff.

However, despite its evident magnificence, this was not my most pleasing and memorable carp...

One hot, sultry day in the summer of 2000, I spotted two nice carp with their heads down having a quiet nosh in a neglected corner of the lake. After a few minutes of this they righted themselves and slid away. I hurried back to the pitch where I had spent a fishless night, grabbed a rod and some bait, and sneaked back to where I'd been watching those fish. They hadn't returned, so I swung out my baited hook and lobbed in a few half-boilies and pellets to sweeten the deal. Then I laid down my rod and waited.

After what seemed an age, one of the fish returned. It hoverered over the baited spot for a bit, then slowly lowered its head and had a little prod. My heart was in my mouth. My eyes were jumping from the fish to my rod and back again, desperate for some sign that it had picked up my bait. Nothing. Again, it righted itself and swam off. Agh! I kept telling myself: just wait. Wait! Several minutes later it returned, and went through the same routine. Head down, tail up, munch, munch, munch. Again it righted itself and swam away. By now I was shaking. Quite obviously it had not picked up my bait. I could see it still, on the lake bed with a few freebies. I waited again. Sure enough, once more it returned, and up-ended. Within seconds I saw it freeze momentarily, its fins all extended and stiff, knowing it had made an error...and then it bolted for the weed. My rod was nearly ripped off the bank, but I was on it instantly. The battle was short and frantic, and soon I was gazing down at the most immaculate common carp I have ever seen...

25lbs of mint common carp. Like a wood carving.

The angler who took these photos was the proprietor of my local tackle shop. He rattled off a whole film on the fish - I think he was as impressed by its perfection as I was - and then gave me the whole pack of prints and negatives when they were done. Compare that generosity with the other club member who threatened to report me for technically fishing two swims (against the rules!) because I'd left the rest of my gear in the spot where I'd spent a blank night. I don't miss the bankside politics which goes with the carp scene on occasion.

And finally, a couple of miscellania...

Adjacent to the Cons lakes was another lovely Colne Valley pit called North Troy. I caught some nice tench from it, but one night my tench bait was picked up by this stunner...

This striking beast is called a ghost carp. It weighed 21lbs, and gave me a proper run-around on tench tackle.

Another accidental capture was this one from the River Thames, probably around the late 1990s. I was fishing for chub with Rob, at Mapledurham. I forget how much it weighed. 11lb? 13lb? I don't remember. But it is the only Thames carp I've ever caught, and also the only 'leather' carp, ie, one entirely without scales...

River Thames at Mapledurham. Leather carp.

Carp are very long-lived, and are frequently caught many times through their lives. I know, for example, that my 35-pounder from the Cons reached a top weight of 38-something before it died, but I would be intrigued to know what became of my incredibly distinctive Thames carp. Did it grow into a monster one day? And what about that ghostie? It could quite easily be swimming in the clear waters of North Troy still, giving someone else middle-of-the-night palpitations. I hope so.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Lusting for a Redstart

Two or three times a week I am trying to get out for a decent walk. Thankfully it's dead easy to avoid numbers of people, and it keeps my sanity intact. Thus far the birdy pickings have been quite modest, and my stand-out highlight is still those adders from last Saturday. One by one though, the regular migrants are appearing. Reed Warbler fell on Tuesday, and today I finally heard Willow Warbler - two birds. However, there is one 'common' migrant which I desire above all others: male Redstart. Since living in Bridport I've seen just one. This is pathetic, and testament to my effort level in recent springs, so this year I am resolved to try harder. There is nothing quite to compare with seeing your first migrant male Redstart of the year in a sunny April hedgerow. It is a special moment, and I'll never tire of it. That last bird was such a thrill that I involuntarily spoke to it. 'Oh, you beauty!' I said. It promptly flew into cover...

No Redstarts today, but the first Willow Warbler song is always lovely of course, and seeing two Whimbrel on the deck was a treat...

Elegant Whimbrel in perfect profile

My walks are taking me to quiet corners which I've not investigated before and which, without this current lockdown, I probably never would have. Will I turn up a surprise gem? I doubt it, but it's fun to try.

My second attempt at nocmig was somewhat better than the first, and contained actual bird noises. In addition to some excellent Tawny Owl action, there was this...



And that was a Moorhen! As loud and clear as the very first one I heard several nights ago, and almost as pleasing. For some reason, the notion that Moorhens are wheeling about the night sky over our little bungalow estate here in Bridport really tickles me. Brilliant...

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The Comedy of Errors

The coronavirus lockdown has had a major impact on the UK birding community. Its effects are manifold, but I am going to focus on three.
  1. Out of the blue, thousands of birders have been investigating/researching/looking into nocmig, ie, the nocturnal sound-recording of stuff what flies over your home while you're asleep.
  2. Thousands of birders have been feverishly buying nocmig kit and downloading Audacity.
  3. And thousands of birders have been rueing the very day...
Let's take these one at a time.

One. Studies show that 98% of the birders who began showing an interest in nocmig within the last few weeks had thus far been, at best, utterly indifferent to the whole concept. So why now? The same studies conclude that it is because the lockdown has taken seawatching off the table. Apparently scanning through an Audacity spectrogram produces hormonal responses identical to those of a dire seawatch. The switch to nocmig was purely an instinctive move by creatures in need of a fix.

Two. The acquisition of kit and software was inevitable. And the urgency (in many cases, desperation) with which it was undertaken is typical of those subject to the base urges mentioned above.

Three. Well, yes. Obviously. Anything that substitutes for seawatching is going to be at least as frustrating and infuriating.

So, last night was my first proper effort...

The temptress.

As seems to be the norm for first-timers, I stuck the recorder in a bucket. I don't yet have a mains power supply, so it was down to the two AA batteries to provide enough juice for the night. Error. I had partially drained them already, and they gave me less than four hours...

Ah well, surely that's plenty of time for some nocmig gold? A superb garden goody to NOT include on my garden list. Because yes, that's another issue isn't it? The 'list' thing. For me, the only way round it is to have a 'Nocmig List'. Anyway, rather excitedly I plugged the recorder into my laptop, opened Audacity and uploaded the night's noises. It took a-a-a-a-ages. My laptop is about five years old, and probably a bit congested with rubbish. Plus I am not that computer-savvy. Whatever the reason(s), my first nocmig file was rather slow to give itself up. And once it finally was transferred, my every action in Audacity resulted in the programme 'hanging' for an eternity. Eventually...eventually, it settled down, and I clicked through the spectrogram in 25-second chunks...

A million false alarms. This must be common to all newbies, but any hint of 'activity', ie, smudgy blips and lines etc, and I'd be stopping, selecting, playing, replaying, discarding... It took forever to get through the first hour. I was treated to many varieties of dog, various muted voices, a car horn, and then this...

Nocmig action!

This was the one and only decent birdy noise on the whole recording. I haven't yet worked out how to put a proper sound file on here, so take it from me that this sounded interesting. My best guess was Grey Heron, but I couldn't be sure. I listened to a few on Xeno Canto, and admittedly they mostly sounded a bit shorter and harsher and, well, more obviously Heron, but it seemed like a good shout. So I made a tentative approach to the Nocmig WhatsApp Group. 'Could this be a Grey Heron?' I asked.

I have to say, the nocmig cognoscenti are an extremely helpful bunch, and they were quick to respond to this, my first dipping of a toe in the murky nocmig waters...

'It's a mammal. A cat I think'.
'Agreed. Cat.'

So, climb aboard the nocmig train my friends. And prepare for a severe humbling.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Riches

I sympathise with those living in densely populated areas, far from the birding locations they love. In that respect I have an embarrassment of riches locally. I'm going to spend the rest of this post spreading some of it out before you, and I really hope it doesn't provoke envy, or any other negative feeling. My intention is simply to share it, to offer some vicarious birding for those less fortunate than I am right now. Please accept it in that spirit.

Very early this morning I took a walk...

Written on a sheet of paper, my tally of birds would look pretty unspectacular. A few Wheatears, 3 Swallows, my first 2 Whitethroats of the year. Some other bits and bobs. But in glorious Technicolor it looks a whole lot different. I love this modest camera...

First Wheatear of the day, in classic pose...
I counted 10 Wheatears in total. Here are two more of them.
And by way of a change...Rock Pipit.


Then came a non-birdy interlude. By complete fluke I came across some adders. I haven't seen an adder for quite a few years, and had forgotten how splendid they are. To be fair I rarely make the effort to look for them, but after this encounter will try harder I think. The photo shows a pair. The male is the silvery-grey one, and the browner, enormously fat one is the female. If you click on the photo and look at that little dark area at the tip of the arrow, you can see reptilian scales. Although I didn't realise it at the time, that female extends well beyond the frame of my shot. She is massive.

Adder pair

Beady red eye of the male


Obviously that was the stand-out highlight of my walk, but Wheatears continued to parade shamelessly, and I could not resist...




And to finish off, there were also fish...

Grey Mullet - quite large ones too.


I'm pretty gutted that Steve Gale's Wheatear Challenge is no longer a going concern, because this year I would be romping it. Well, maybe not, but I cannot seem to leave them alone.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Pandora's Box?

This lockdown thing is quite evidently encouraging many of us birders, naturalists, etc, down paths we never saw ourselves taking. In my case, it's got me garden listing. And I'm pleased to say that my #BWKM0 list crept up to 41 today, via Kestrel and Mallard. But keeping a garden list is something which probably the majority of birders do anyway. Hardly a big deal then.

But what is a big deal, and as far as I am concerned has prompted a paradigm shift in birding behaviour, is nocmig. To be honest I had rarely given much thought to what might fly over my garden after dark, and I certainly never envisaged myself sitting outside in multiple layers, ears cocked in anticipation. But that's what I've been doing. And following hours of nothing, on Monday night a Moorhen flew over calling. Wow! And last night two did likewise. And I caught one of them on a basic voice-recording app on my phone, and was pathetically chuffed.

Anyway, even before this cornucopia of nocturnal avian riches, I had already taken the plunge and ordered a proper digital recorder. It arrived today...

Oh dear... 

It was not cheap, but my philosophy with kit like this is to buy something decent if I can, knowing there will always be a market for it second-hand if my enthusiasm proves to have overreached itself.

I am now at the bottom of yet another steep learning curve. My intention (at least initially) is to use it in harness with my ears. I would equate it with a birder using a camera. Identifying a tricky bird from images later is perfectly okay with me, and on that basis I would happily 'tick' anything I recorded and heard, even if I couldn't ID it at the time. Of course there are other scenarios re nocmig, but I'm steering well clear of them just at the moment...

Naturally I have carefully retained the packaging. Just in case.

PS. It is 20:55. Guess where I am sitting right this second.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Includes a Garden Whale

On Monday night I settled down for a bit of naked nocmigging, expecting the usual silence, and within a few minutes a Moorhen called, directly overhead! Unmistakable, just the sort of noise you'd hear if you startled one out of the bankside vegetation during a stroll round your local lake. I was ridiculously chuffed, out of all proportion to the status of the species involved. Number 36 on my #BWKM0 list, and a new one for the garden.

Last night I gave it an hour. Within seven minutes I heard a faint, presumably distant, Canada Goose. Number 37.

Sitting in the garden after dark, ears cocked, has become slightly addictive. My hit rate is dire, yet I keep trying. I simply cannot help myself. However, I am not the world's best at calls, and need to up my game. And I will. More on that later...

This morning it was another long walk. A chap in West Bay noticed my bins and said "Are you looking for birds?" Responding to my affirmative, he went on: "There's a nice Sandwich Tern perched on a buoy in the harbour." It was great to get gen from a fellow 'exerciser'. There currently seems to be a marked increase in friendliness (in a two-metres-plus kind of way) when locals encounter one another. I don't think I'm imagining it. And if it helps me see birds, terrific...

Phwoarr! Sarnie. What a cracker.

And another, slightly more distant shot to give it a bit more context...

Great hair-do.

Not too long after this I came across a fresh-in male Wheatear. I will never tire of Wheatears. Especially spring males. They are simply outstanding little things. I spent a bit of time with this bird, and although it was never confiding, the P900 did it proud. I believe there is a saying: 'you can never have enough Wheatear photos'...

There isn't? Please let there be.

I am a sucker for this pose. As you will notice...
Leatherjacket breakfast.


And while we're on chats...

Stonechat. Having them breeding on my doorstep is easy to take for granted. Mustn't.

Most of the rest of the day was spent in the garden. Adding to the #BWKM0 list has been a slow but steady process. As of today I am on 39, with Long-tailed Tit added yesterday and House Martin today. Best bird this afternoon was Red Kite x4. Three came over simultaneously (two went W, one S) and another single S later, encouraged on its way by a Herring Gull.

Red Kites. The two that drifted W
And the one that got grief.

And finally, cetacean of the day. Around 10:55 a plane flew over. Planes are infrequent right now, so I had a look at it. The odd shape reminded me of the subject of a tweet which Cliff Smith posted a few days back, and belatedly I thought to get the camera out and take a snap. This decision coincided with it heading away into cloud, and the two photos are shockingly bad. However, it is pretty amazing what you can extract from a digital image if you're prepared to be brutal...

On the left: my original smear. On the right: Beluga! BGA114D Airbus en route from Toulouse to Chester. With grateful thanks to John Down for the gen.

Needless to say, this is the first whale I've seen from my garden.

Earlier I mentioned upping my game re bird calls etc. Ooh! That reminds me! Today I heard a singing Goldcrest. Which is brilliant. Why? Because I could hear it. Some ears of similar vintage have not heard Goldcrest for a while. So I am pleased. Anyway, I was saying...

I have ordered a digital sound recorder. Living as I do in Dorset, one day something is going to fly over me in the dark, going 'plik'. Once. Faintly. And when that happens I want to be able to save that 'plik' for posterity. To replay it at my leisure, time and time again. To view its smudgy little spectrogram with self-satisfied delight.

After all, one cannot live in Dorset and not have Ortolan on the garden list.