Friday, 31 July 2020

Finding Your Own Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull

Towards the end of June there was talk on birdy Twitter, speculating about whether we would see any juv Yellow-legged Gulls before July, which is when they generally appear. And indeed, it happened. Then, through the next few weeks, we were (and are still being) blessed with countless images of the lovely brutes. In parts of London and the south-east they are relatively numerous, in other places less so. In some areas of the country they are genuinely scarce or even rare. To many observers I can easily imagine that all this glib YLG talk on Twitter and elsewhere must be slightly irritating, especially if you find the whole identification process difficult and confusing, and/or they are very scarce where you live.

Regarding identification, I am sure there are many excellent resources to draw upon, so this post is not going to be a comprehensive ID guide. However, the other day I got a jammy photo which might be useful - especially to beginners at the gentle art of gull...

Here it is...

What we have here are a juv Herring Gull (on the left) and juv YLG (on the right) coming in to land


This photo is quite instructive for a number of reasons, but I'm going to stick with just two. You've probably heard of the 'inner primary window' being a helpful pointer in separating juv HG and YLG, but maybe you're not sure what it is, exactly? Or what to look for? And what about the 'plain outer greater coverts'? Excellent feature, but where on earth are they when they're at home? Good questions all...



Inner primary window
This is basically a paler panel visible in the spread primaries, and is formed by paler areas on some of the primary feathers. Herring Gull usually has a strong and obvious inner primary window, whereas on YLG it is present but weak. This photo demonstrates the difference very well.

That all said, on a bird flying past at eye level it can be a surprisingly difficult feature to evaluate!

Greater coverts
In the photo it is obvious that the YLG has extensively plain outer greater coverts. And a glance at the Herring Gull shows the equivalent area to be strongly chequered. Again, easy to see in a photo, but very often not so easy on a flying bird. However, if a bird is perched up on the deck, on YLG those plain outer greater coverts will frequently show as an obvious dark area (roughly rectangular in shape) like so...

Same YLG as in open-wing shot

And without all the yellow lines it looks like this...




Pretty distinctive isn't it?

But...

Depending on how the wing is held, that dark rectangle can be all but invisible! So just because all you can see are a load of boldly chequered greater coverts, well, don't rule out YLG without checking other features. But if you can see it, chances are you're in with a good shout.

Unless it's a Lesser Black-backed Gull! Yes, juv LBBG also has plain outer greater coverts.

Yep, gull ID is a minefield!

The best advice I can offer is to look at as many gulls as you can, as often as you can. Slowly, slowly the pieces of jigsaw will begin to fit together. I do not know of any other way to do it, and certainly not a quick way. I've been trying to think of an illustration to explain it, and the best I can think of right now is this: if you own a pet dog, and had to pick it out of a line-up comprising umpteen other examples of the breed, long-term familiarity would enable you to ID it immediately. Well, I hope so, otherwise my analogy has failed! Anyway, that's what it's like with gulls. Familiarity with the common ones makes the scarce ones leap out at you. At least, one always hopes so...

So if you have yet to find your first juv YLG, happy hunting...

Thursday, 30 July 2020

The Secret of a Long & Happy Relationship

Looking back over roughly 40 years of birding (more, if you include youthful dabbling) I have learned many lessons. The purpose of this post is to share one or two. Maybe you'll read this through to the end, scratch your head and wonder what the NQS bloke was going on about. Maybe you are one of those fortunate souls who are able to maintain a steady, consistent level of enthusiasm for birding, day in, day out. Maybe you have never been blighted by the urge to pack it in, even temporarily. Maybe you never will. Maybe...

If you google 'hobby definition', this is what you get...

Hobby (noun): 'an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure'

Today I'd like to focus on one word in that sentence: 'pleasure'. Because that is the key to a long and happy relationship with your hobby. We're talking birding here, but the principle obviously has broader application.

So, here are some mistakes I've made...

Twitching
I have many fond memories from twitching. Fantastic birds with good friends in incredible places. In hindsight, on many occasions the bird played second fiddle to everything else though. And when you find yourself gunning up the A1 because it's a tick and you...er...need it, and not because you want to, well... Eventually twitching was frequently a chore, not a pleasure.

Patch Birding
Patch birding is all the rage right now, isn't it? There are a couple of ways I've mucked it up though. One way is by being too rigid in what is my 'patch'. The moment I start drawing lines on a map, I am doomed. It took me until very recently to realise that, but it is definitely true. I find it too constraining and get bored. Feeling I ought to be visiting somewhere is not the same as wanting to.

Chasing a patch list, or just a patch year list, is also a bad idea for me. Making special efforts to see some bird I'm not all that bothered about, simply because I need it for the list... I hate it.


I've barely scratched the surface here, but even so I expect you've probably sussed what my problem is. I get bored easily. And yet in this very strange year of 2020 I have managed to maintain a high level of enthusiasm for my birding right through June and July - something I haven't managed for many years. How? Well, I've touched on it before, but the key has been simply to do what I want to do. Not what some silly list, or geographical boundary, suggests I ought to do. Here's the recipe...

Local Birding, not Patch Birding
All my birding is close by, mostly to where I live, but also to where I work (think Axe Estuary, and gulls, for example). Travelling is minimal and cheap, and relatively low-carbon. If I fancy a walk at West Bexington I go there. And if I cross the border into East Bexington, that's fine. Or I might try Burton Cliffs. I feel no call of duty to grind away at some 'patch' in all weathers. I keep a tally if I fancy it, but often don't. I have no idea how many species I've seen this year, and don't care. This is the first year for a long time that I've actually written a few county rarity descriptions, but if it becomes a dreadful chore I won't force myself and I won't feel guilty either...

I expect I come over as a selfish whatsit, but all this pleasure I'm getting from birding right now, well, I don't want to jeapordise that...

When my alarm went off this morning, I opened my eyes and thought a walk at Cogden Beach would be nice. A short one, then off to work.

Early. And...empty. Bliss.


When the scenery is so gorgeous, and the wash of light surf on shingle is the dominant sound, it's hard to be worried that there are few birds. And who could possibly grumble when one of these pulls the perfect fencepost pose...

My third Wheatear of the 'autumn'. Local and lovely.


So there we are, just a few lessons gleaned from my woefully up-and-down relationship with birding. Thankfully not all of us are so high-maintenance!

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Beside the Seaside

One of the best things about living where I do is just down the road. The seaside. When we first moved from Herts in December 2002, every visit to the seafront made us feel like we were on holiday. We had to remind ourselves, 'No, we actually live here now!' It took many months, perhaps more than a year, before that feeling eventually subsided. But even now I occasionally find myself paused at some gorgeous spot, a salty breeze on my cheek, just gazing out over the swell or along the coast at the wide sweep of Lyme Bay, barely believing my good fortune...

Of course, for a birder a coastal location has everything going for it. Migrant-wise it's the point of both arrival and departure. And there is sea to watch. Okay, the local seawatching could be better, but there have been some absolutely brilliant moments over the years. And there are gulls; sometimes a lot of gulls. Moreover, it is just beautiful.

Anyway, I am sitting here tapping this out after a walk at East Bexington with Sandra. Just a stroll really, no intensive hedge-grilling or anything like that, but even so we managed at least 2 Yellow Wagtails, single Reed and Cetti's Warblers, a superb Hobby which slowly worked its way west, upsetting loads of hirundines en route, and this Wheatear...

My first E Bex Wheatear of the autumn.

There were surprisingly few gulls along the beach. A handful of Herring and GBB Gulls, and just 3 Black-headed caught my eye. We were almost back at the car park when I spotted a group of four small gulls heading towards us. They were all Meds. So, to spice things up I pretended the juv among them was actually a Laughing Gull, and that the mission I had chosen to accept was to get a clinching photo...

Camera bag open - camera out - switch on - check settings - zoom - point - focus - a-a-a-a-and...

Nailed! Imaginary Laughing Gull.


Yes, whether or not the birding is good, you can always make it better. For example, yesterday there was a bit of a blow here. I contemplated an early start in the strong southerly and rain, but decided against it in the end. Too many wet disappointments in the past. I finally made it out at 17:30, by which time the wind was easing, and swinging steadily more west. It was dead out there. Lifeless. Twenty minutes in, and I think I might have seen one Gannet or so. And then suddenly I picked up two very distant shearwaters. And I mean very distant. I zoomed right up and squinted hard. What were they? Well, not Balearics. They were shearing like mad, big easy loops. Balearics never do that. Manxies? I couldn't detect even a hint of paleness, but if they were back-on then I probably wouldn't at that range. But they had a kind of relaxed, lanky look, and obviously I was toying with the Sooty option by now. But let me tell you, inner-Lyme Bay Sooties are very scarce indeed. Even so, by the time they'd gone out of view I'd decided what they were: possible Sooty Shearwaters. It's the one time you're allowed to be as stringy as you like - when super-distant seabirds go past. As long as you keep away from 'probable' and (heaven forbid!) 'definite', you'll be okay. If your mates further along the coast see nothing but Manxies, rather than think 'What a plonker!' they'll be grateful that you bravely gave them a heads-up, despite your evident deep uncertainty. Why not 'probable'? Because it's way too close to being a claim. And once you start with the 'probables' it is just a short slide down the slippery slope to 'definite', otherwise known as full-on stringing. So don't use it. Trust me.

I've just read the last few sentences back, and...er...it is obvious when I'm being a bit tongue in cheek, right? I hope so. Anyway, as the seawatching clock ticked on and my will to live shrivelled some more, a pukka Balearic skittered by at 18:23, quite close. So I gave it another forty minutes of my precious remaining life. Groan...

This morning I noticed that BirdGuides had picked up my seawatching results from Twitter, so, if you noticed '...also 2 possible Sooty Shearwaters although distant', well, that was me brightening a dull seawatch. Still, they honestly might have been, and if someone at Charmouth, Lyme Regis or Seaton had seen 2 Sooties fly past last night, naturally I would have had 'em...

Wheatears do like to be beside the seaside

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Elephant's Baby

Recently I wrote a post entitled The Elephant in the Room, a reference to the low-carbon birding topic which almost no-one wants to mention. I probably wrote it poorly, because some readers evidently interpreted it as anti-twitching, which wasn't my intention. Anyway, it received more than 10x the average number of visits to an NQS post, and far more comments than usual. Frankly, I'm not sure what that tells me...

Anyway, this is the sequel.

First, I am going to make two presumptions:
  1. All of us basically accept that burning fossil fuel contributes to global warming and its ever-more-sinister consequences.
  2. All of us basically accept that we should do it less.
That being the case, why do so many of us still clock up umpteen thousands of birding miles in our cars every year? And pursue our hobby by means of inter-continental air travel? The short answer is: because we can, and because we want to. Logically then, to stop us doing this, it either has to become impossible or so unpalatable that it no longer appeals. Or both. So let's examine those two scenarios...

1. Impossible
Interestingly, Covid-19 briefly made high-carbon birding impossible. There are probably things other than a global pandemic that would do likewise, but realistically we need to focus on scenario 2...

2. Unpalatable
This one is tricky. How on earth do you make high-carbon birding unpalatable? That is, unpalatable to such an extent that birders no longer want to do it?

On the face of it, I can talk about low-carbon birding without too much hypocrisy. Virtually all my birding is local, and I have never flown abroad for a birding holiday.

But then I live on the coast, with lovely birding habitat on my doorstep. And I've been the twitching nutter in my youth and got it out of my system, so to speak. And the reason I have never flown abroad for a birding holiday is because it has never appealed. In other words, relatively low-carbon birding is not too much of a challenge or sacrifice for me. But suppose I lived in a city, or my livelihood depended on foreign birding tours? Well, you can see the problem. But from my 60+ years of life experience, I suspect the problem is actually far more intractable than the challenge posed by our various personal circumstances. And I'm going to illustrate how I see it by means of an analogy...

I grew up in a world where it was perfectly acceptable to smoke tobacco virtually anywhere you wanted to. You could smoke in the cinema, the football ground, the railway station, on public transport, in the pub, the restaurant, and very often in the workplace. I started smoking aged 12, and packed it in for the first time at 19. I finally knocked it on the head when I was 33. All those years of smoking I knew it would eventually kill me if I didn't stop. In more recent times, smoking has become increasingly restricted by means of the law. And it is far less socially acceptable these days too; huddling in the shady corner outside their office building, fag in hand, smokers probably feel like utter pariahs. And yet...and yet, millions and millions of people still smoke. Why? Knowing how deadly it is, how could they? Short answer? Because they want to.

On cigarette packets is an unambiguous message...



Does the prospect of an early grave put them off? Er...no.

Beat that, global warming!

In the normal course of things I am a cheerful optimist. However, when it come to low-carbon birding I fear the worst. On Twitter I have seen birders counter the issue by explaining that by choosing not to have children they are basically excused, thanks. And one of my favourite low-carbon birding advocates, Tim Allwood, constantly gets stuff like this...



I realise that a post of this nature is fairly out of character for NQS, but for some reason I cannot resist poking the hornet's nest. In a warped kind of way it amuses me. If my generation is the problem, well, in 30 years the vast majority of us will be gone! Meantime, I will endeavour to promote a birding ethos that finds fulfillment in what is mostly just down the road, if possible...

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Daymig

Purchasing a digital recorder is a watershed moment. And once you own one, a whole new world of possibilities is spread before you. Nocmig, obviously. And I've already written about that. But also - for want of a better term - daymig! I'm not sure quite how many birders habitually carry a digital recorder into the field with them, but I have yet to see one in action personally. That's not to say it doesn't happen, because I know it does, but it is undoubtedly a minority pursuit.

My Zoom H4n Pro has lived in my camera bag for several weeks now, and I've used it to record Blyth's Reed Warbler, Nightingale, Cetti's Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat. In each case I needed to extract it from my bag, fit the windshield and fire it up. But what about having it switched on and recording throughout your time in the field? Again, a small minority of birders do this, and it is something which appealed to me. Just occasionally there will be that calling flyover or brief snatch of song that you wish you'd been able to capture for posterity, if only to replay it for ID purposes! And last year (? I think) a birder in Sussex (? I think) recorded a vismig Red-throated Pipit during a movement of Meadow Pipits. Mega! I got the impression that he routinely records vismig sessions. When you think about it, this is such an obvious application of digital recording technology that I'm surprised it's not already the norm. I'm sure it soon will be...

Anyway, finally I have rigged up my recorder for constant in-the-field action. Following some helpful tips from one or two keen recordists, I trawled eBay for potentially useful (and cheap) bits and made a couple of speculative purchases. Thankfully, bolting it all together worked a treat...


The necessary bits. I think the bolt next to the tripod adaptor actually came with the strap mount, but whatever, it all fits together nicely. I attach the lanyard to my camera bag via a keyring. If the worst happened, at least the recorder won't hit the deck.
Fully assembled daymig kit.


And this is what it all looks like when attached to my camera bag...

The top plate on the strap mount clip is adjustable, and I now rotate it so the recorder is more vertically oriented.


It is still quick and easy to access the camera. Oh, and it's worth mentioning that once or twice I've had a dog run up and give it an inquisitive look...

So, my procedure is to carefully note the time when I switch it on, plus the times of any interesting 'sound events', so that I can quickly zero in on them when reviewing the recording later. The simple act of walking along is massively noisy, so forget any notion of going through it like a nocmig session. And that's it really. Very early days for me obviously, but even so I do have a couple of examples to share...

The first is a surprise Cetti's Warbler at East Bexington, which gave a burst of 'machine-gun' call as I walked past the Sallow Clump of Joy. I never saw the bird, but that Cetti's is the only one I've encountered at East Bex. At the start of the recording you can hear my footsteps, which stop abruptly when the initial call finally registers on my brain...



And this next example from Wednesday captures a snippet of Yellow Wagtail action, also at East Bexington...



I cannot wait to encounter something really exciting using the recorder like this. What better way to verify an unphotographed flyover? But even if that doesn't happen, I foresee plenty of audio entertainment this autumn...

Much About?

Much About?

When I first started birding, this was a standard greeting when one birder encountered another. It's a question that wants to hear the answer, 'Yes mate, lots,' followed by a list of mouth-watering goodies. In reality that never happened. 'Nah mate, it's pretty dead,' was more likely. So anyway, here we are, heading for late July. If that question were put to me on my local patch right now, how would I respond?

First, there are juvenile Med Gulls to enjoy...



And juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls...



But okay, gulls aren't your thing? In that case, have some early migrants...

Sedge Warbler
Yellow Wagtail
Wheatear


But migrants aren't exactly thick on the ground just yet, so in the meantime there are butterflies...

A lovely, fresh Brown Argus

Small Skipper

Wall Browns, making more Wall Browns

If I had wader habitat, this post would look extremely different. Lets face it, a good wetland will be leaping with stuff right now, but a good wetland is not what I have. Unless you class the sea and its shore as a 'wetland'. In which case, yes, in places it is very much leaping with stuff, but nothing you'd want to point your optics at, as this photo of a Yellow-legged Gull seemingly making a bee-line for said 'stuff' amply demonstrates...

Ni-i-i-i-ice...

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Nocmig - An Introduction

Like many other UK birders, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences forced me to find ways to maximise home-based birding jollies. Enter nocmig, the activity bearing a slightly awkward acronym which basically means recording night-time sounds, hopefully including those made by nocturnally migrating birds.

Of course, I have known of nocmig for years. Haven't we all? It is responsible for rewriting the UK status of Ortolan Bunting, with special emphasis on the heavily-populated Dorset flyway. So why had I never bothered with it before? One might also ask, why hadn't the other umpteen thousand birders who took it up in 2020 bothered with it before either? Well, I don't know about them, but I can tell you my reasons...

1. Equipment
It requires kit I didn't own, and didn't want to buy. Therefore I couldn't get involved, could I? End of story.

2. Inertia
Nocmig requires learning a load of new things. I am lazy, with an inbuilt resistance to hard work. And a long, steep learning curve strikes me as hard work. Therefore I couldn't get involved, could I? End of story.

3. The Listing Conundrum.
I have happily day-ticked, year-ticked, and even patch-ticked birds which I have heard but not seen, on condition that I have at some time in the past actually clapped eyes on the species. So I have no heard-only lifers. At least, none that I can think of. But honestly, I draw the line at counting a bird which I haven't even heard with my ears, a bird which has been digitally recorded in my absence. This is the scenario we're talking about with nocmig. How could you do that and still look other birders in the eye? Therefore I couldn't get involved, could I? End of story.

So, three massive show-stoppers. And yet here I am, nocmigging away like a good 'un. How did that happen? All three of the above will be addressed as we go...


Beginnings
So, basically nocmig had never appealed to me. And then in early April, birders across the land were hearing nocturnally-migrating Common Scoter from their gardens, balconies and open windows. I thought it would be pretty cool to get Common Scoter on the garden list, and began to sit out in the freezing cold each evening, initially hearing nothing remotely exciting. And then one night I heard a Moorhen! This was a big surprise, and I found myself unexpectedly chuffed. I even captured a Moorhen call on my phone one night. It was a recording of such dire quality that the next step was inevitable...

I bought a recorder. A proper one. A Zoom H4n Pro. And once that happens, there is only one way to go...

Nocmig kit


The recorder stays indoors, in the dry, while the cheap mic gets the weather. So far, so good. The mains adaptor is vital unless you want to use rechargeables or take out a loan.

Mic mount professionally bodged onto the cabin fascia board


When it comes to using that cheapo shotgun mic, one lesson I learned early on involves the microphone setting. Mine has a three-position switch - off, normal and tele. Somewhere I read that you should set your mic to 'tele' in order to minimise extraneous noises coming from below and from the side, ie, focusing it upwards. This might be perfect for hi-fidelity equipment, but do that with my bargain-basement item and the increase in electronic gain gives you background hiss like a pressure-cooker going off. Setting it at 'normal' works just fine, and I have the results to prove it. Incidentally, the mic takes a single AA battery. Mine has lasted three months and counting.

'Normal' setting does the job just fine.


So that's the equipment taken care of, and as you can see, show-stopper number one (above) is now dealt with.


Initial Progress
There is one piece of kit which I haven't mentioned - a memory card. You need this for your recorder. A night's sound file is large (3-400MB perhaps) and on my USB2-equipped laptop takes several minutes to upload. So I installed a 32GB card in the recorder, enough for many nights. All good, unless you want to take your recorder out in the field for occasional Blyth's Reed Warbler action, when you quickly discover how long it takes to fire up and be ready to record after switching it on. Around 40 seconds! So now I use a 2GB card, and the recorder is ready for use within 10 seconds of switching it on. I record in mp3 VBR (variable) format, and because a single night's recording will use roughly a quarter of the card's capacity I try to review it straight away.

Getting to grips with Audacity was a challenge. I probably use about .00001% of its functionality, which is ample for this nocmigger's needs, but it still took a while to get familiar with it. There were teething troubles, certainly. And then there is learning your way around Xeno Canto, and how best to utilise its resources to help you identify those peeps, squeaks, blips and squiggles.

But again, here we are just three months in, and I'm pretty happy with it all. So, inertia? The dreaded learning curve? Yes, show-stopper number two is also dealt with.


Ongoing...
Since starting nocmig I have missed very few nights, so must have tallied approximately a hundred now. If you check out the appendix below, you will see that this has resulted in a collection of some 175+ sound clips. Many of those relate to local (or local-ish) birds rather than migrants. In fact, perhaps as few as 50 or so are actual migrants. However, among their number are Night Heron, Stone-curlew, Quail and two Nightjars. Frankly, I find this astounding. In my wildest dreams I would not have imagined such quality flying over my garden here in W Dorset, and yet it has. By sitting outside after dark I have heard with my own ears Whimbrel, Barn Owl, Moorhen, Coot and one of the Nightjars, all happily added to my garden list. But many species remain digital entities only, which for me excludes them from that list. If I was the avid listing sort, perhaps I would keep a separate, special nocmig list, but I'm not that bothered. The important point is this: Each and every decent bird gives me a buzz. The fact that it exists only as a digital signal matters not a jot. And the really special birds have been genuinely exciting, far more so than I ever would have imagined.

Yes, the list thing doesn't matter. So that's show-stopper number three out of the way too.

Nocmig is simply different. It involves birds, of course, but unless you're outside, listening live alongside your recorder, it really isn't birding. Once I had made this distinction in my own mind, and separated nocmig from what I think of as birding, I saw it in a different light. A very favourable light.


Resources
I have already mentioned (and linked) Audacity and Xeno Canto, but there are other useful resources for the nascent nocmigger...
Nocmig - Tips for Recording Nocturnal Bird Migration   A superb website. What it says on the tin.
The Sound Approach - Nocturnal Flight Calls   Another mine of information.

I have gleaned bits and bobs from umpteen other sources also, but these two are in a league of their own.


Conclusion
The purpose of this post has been to document my initial steps into the world of nocmig. It would be nice to think it might encourage other birders to consider trying it, but whether it does or not, I can honestly say this: Nocmig has added enormously to the pleasure I get from birds and birding right now, and I wish I'd got into it years ago.


Appendix - List up to 20/7/2020 (since first - a Moorhen - on 14/4/2020)

Each call, or series of calls, counts as one occurence. Listed here are those I am confident about. I also have a large collection of possibles, probables and outright unknowns.

Barn Owl   55+ (there have been so many that I rarely retain them now)
Black-headed Gull   1
Canada Goose   1
Common Sandpiper   7
Common Scoter   1
Coot   7
Curlew   1
Dunlin   7
Grey Heron   1
Grey Plover   1
Little Grebe   1
Little Ringed Plover   2
Mallard   9
Moorhen   45
Night Heron   1
Nightjar   2
Oystercatcher   5
Quail   1
Redshank   1
Ringed Plover  4
Sandwich Tern   1
Spotted Flycatcher   1
Stone-curlew   1
Turnstone   1
Water Rail   5
Whimbrel   12
Wood Sandpiper   1

Total of at least 175 identified.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Easily Pleased

I'll be honest, I'm disappointed. The weather forecast looked great. Cloud, rain later. When I switched on the recorder last night I was convinced that a few juicy waders would be caught in its digital net this morning. Even more so when I heard early reports of a nice arrival on the Axe before breakfast. But no. Two brief Moorhens. Sigh...

This afternoon Sandra and I went for a walk at East Bexington, straying over the border a little into West Bex territory. The fields look great. Already they are attracting Canada Geese and lots of Woodpigeons. I'm going to need to carry a scope pretty soon. The only gull gathering of note was at West Bex...

This is only part of it...

There are some 20 Med Gulls in that shot alone, and notice how several birds are only partially visible below the lowest ridge of shingle. You have to go down almost to the waterline to get a decent view. Picking through them all in a quest for more Yellow-legged action I could see at least four juvenile birds, but three of them were Herring Gulls. One wasn't though! Unfortunately they were jittery, and didn't let me get even slightly close, with the big gulls very quickly out on the water...

Juv Yellow-legged Gull. The tertials are not the more usual, simple thumbnail pattern, but already the head is looking nice and pale, with that characteristic dark eye patch becoming increasingly isolated and obvious.

While I was trying to creep up on the gulls, 4 Sanderlings flew through W, just off the beach, calling quietly. It was good to see waders on the move, and perhaps tonight's recording will be better...

Heading back to East Bex I pointed out to Sandra a tangled mass of dead bramble and told her all about what a little bird-magnet it was. And it's true. There is always something perched on it, sometimes several things. On my last visit it held at least 4 Whitethroats, 2 or 3 Stonechats, a brief probable Reed Warbler, and a not-brief definite Reed Bunting. I've seen Corn Bunting sing from it. Right now though, it held absolutely nothing. We paused a while and stared at the resolutely birdless pile of sticks. Still nothing. We turned away and took about three steps along the road...

'Tswee!'

A call I knew, but couldn't immediately place.

And then suddenly there it was, perched jauntily on the bird magnet...

Male Yellow Wagtail.


I was chuffed to bits to see this. In the 17 years I've spent birding (in my on-and-off way) in East Devon/West Dorset I don't need many fingers to count how many males I've seen in this plumage. Less than a hand's worth. And they have all been in spring. This is only my second July Yellow Wag locally, and the previous one was on 31st, so virtually August. What a cracker! It made my day.

Doesn't take much to keep me smiling...

Saturday, 18 July 2020

A Bizarre Coincidence?

A couple of catch-up items...

First, the colour-ringed Med Gull at Cogden Beach on Wednesday evening. It was ringed as a pullus at Pagham Harbour in June last year, and went on a winter vacation to northern Spain before its reappearance on the S coast...



Almost certainly the same bird was a few miles east at Abbotsbury Swannery earlier the same day, but flew off before the ring could be read, and as UK-ringed Med Gulls are apparently very scarce in Dorset I am pleased that it stayed local for long enough to give us another chance.

Secondly, garden birding...

Despite easing of the lockdown I have kept going with the BWKM0 list (Bird Watching at Kilometre Zero, in case you needed reminding) for no other reason than the fact that it's been fun. The whole enterprise has added immeasurable enjoyment to my local birding. For starters it is responsible for my entry into the world of nocmig, and that has been simply brilliant! But more fundamentally it has got me thinking about - curious about - my really local birds, those I can see or hear from home. For example, without BWKM0 I wouldn't have noticed that Greenfinch is seemingly hard to come by at NQS Manor, but boy, have I struggled to get it on the list! Finally I managed a nice male earlier this month, but had to scope a distant apple tree in order to see it. However, the very same day that Greenfinch fell, something rather more bizarre also happened...

Back in the spring I spent a lot of time skywatching from the garden. With the arrival of summer my efforts in this area dwindled massively, but on Greenfinch Day I was at it again. Around lunchtime I spotted a few gulls off to the west and raised my bins for a proper look. I could barely believe it when one of them was a Fulmar! In leisurely fashion it cruised off in a more-or-less westerly direction and out of view. I would imagine it skirted the northern edge of Bridport itself. If this had been my first encounter with a from-the-garden Fulmar (bearing in mind I live three miles from the sea) I would have had it all over the blog that same evening. But it wasn't. NQS readers might recall the previous occasion, which was so astounding that I felt the need for upper-case lettering and exclamation marks.

So, what's going on? There is no question that in this neck of the woods an inland Fulmar is a rare thing. And when I say 'inland' I mean almost any appreciable distance from the sea. For example, The Birds of Devon (Tyler, 2010) lists just ten 'inland records' and one of those reads as follows: '2007  One circling a mile inland from Seaton, 30 April'. A mile inland! That's all. Virtually anywhere away from the sea is quite clearly a highly unusual event in Devon. The Birds of Dorset (Green, 2004) says that Fulmars '...are occasionally seen inside Poole and Christchurch Harbours and flying over sites close to the coast such as Radipole and Lodmoor NRs.' It also cites a handful of what it refers to as 'more unusual sightings'. These include one over Stoborough, near Wareham (approx 5 miles from the sea but less than 2 from Poole Harbour) and another over Holdenhurst Road in Boscombe (approx 2 miles from the sea) - both June records. You get the picture though - if these sightings are sufficiently noteworthy to be included individually in the county avifauna, they are very unusual indeed.

What can I say? First, I wasn't seeing things. It was most definitely a Fulmar, though unfortunately already a bit too distant when I spotted it to consider a photo. A Twitter contact suggested that I check local quarries! Inland nesting is very much a thing with Fulmars elsewhere in the country, so I did check. Not physically, but I checked the literature, and a Somerset contact kindly let me know the situation in that county too. And no, there are no inland, quarry-nesting Fulmars nearby. Was it prospecting then? I doubt it. I think it was nothing more than a very bizarre coincidence. To see one, even slightly-inland Fulmar in Dorset, or our near neighbour Devon, is a once-in-a-blue-moon event. For that bird to be three miles inland, and visible from your garden, even more so. For that to happen twice (May 22nd and July 6th, 2020) is just ridiculous. If it ever happens again, I will have to assume it is the same, slightly crazy, local bird, on a massive, massive wind up...

Friday, 17 July 2020

Simple Pleasures

The last couple of evenings have been pleasant enough to tempt me to sit outside and keep my nocmig recorder company for a while. Recently I've been averaging just one or two notable birds per night, so my expectations were low. However, last night I heard a Barn Owl at 22:57. It sounded quite distant, and certainly wasn't loud. Prior to taking up nocmig I would not even have registered it as Barn Owl, but I've had so many now that I am very switched on to that call. Sure enough, when I reviewed the recording this morning there was a nice little Barn Owl screech at 22:57. And reasonably loud too - I would never have guessed how distant it sounded in real life. The mic is definitely more sensitive than my ears!

The recording also delivered my first Curlew and a single, very unmistakable 'kleep' from an Oystercatcher. A good night.

Late afternoon and I was back on the coast, walking from Abbotsbury beach car park to West Bexington and back. There were far fewer small gulls than my last visit, and I saw little more than a handful of Meds. But it doesn't take much to keep me happy, and the simple pleasure of a fresh juvenile Reed Bunting at East Bexington was enough to put a smile on my face. They don't breed at East Bex as far as I know, so this little chap is evidence of a bit of post-breeding dispersal, from Abbotsbury or West Bex perhaps. Movement. Always good...

So where are you from, my little friend?

I spent some of the return leg on the beach, so as not to miss any gulls on the waterline, where they can be invisible from the coast path. Approaching a small group of big gulls I was overtaken by another big gull heading over the surf towards them. Aha! One of my hoped-for target birds...

And there it is dropping in at the back of the group. Even in this shot there is just enough there to tell you it's a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull

I tried the tactic that worked with the Med Gulls a couple of days ago. A very slow approach, stopping frequently. Rather than lifting off en masse, the nearer gulls peeled away one by one, quite sedately, as I got closer and closer. The Yellow-legged Gull was so relaxed that it had settled itself comfortably on the shingle, but in just about the most inconvenient pose regards showing off its diagnostic features. My plan was to approach sufficiently close to coax it into standing up...

Juv YLG in super-relaxed mode

Well, it was a plan.

Sure enough, it did stand up...and simultaneously launched itself off the beach! I got a couple of distant shots on the water, before it upped and headed for France...



My current approach to local birding is just to go where the fancy takes me. I've talked about this before, and it is working well. Rather than feel duty-bound to visit a particular patch - an approach with which I've struggled in the past - I feel delightfully liberated. My birding is still all local of course, but completely without self-imposed constraint. Frequently, when the birding is slow, I get ample pleasure from the simple act of walking in lovely surroundings, probably because I've chosen to go there rather than felt obliged to. For me this works perfectly right now. Hopefully it will continue to do so...

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

The Eye of the Beholder

Beauty. One definition of the word reads thus: a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. Well, my aesthetic senses (especially my sight) were well pleased with this lot, on the beach between Burton Bradstock and Cogden this evening. Walking very slowly and quietly did the trick.

First, a selection of juveniles. Interesting to see one or two juv feathers being replaced already as they move towards first-winter plumage...


This first-summer is sporting a UK ring. Details awaited.

Shame this adult wasn't fitted with a colour ring too.


That's it. No fancy words. Just Mediterranean Gulls. Hopefully that was sufficient.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Gull Fix

It was nice to visit East Bexington again today. It's been a while, and I was well up for a late afternoon stroll along the Burton Road towards West Bex. Things have changed a bit since I was here last. All the cereal crops have been harvested, and there are now acres of stubbly fields to get excited about. I don't know how long they'll be in this state, but a few months I hope! Anyway, my principal interest today was the sea, so it was good to see plenty of activity out there. Lots of Med Gulls and Common Terns were passing, and I spent a pleasant hour sitting on the beach being entertained by them. Several pulses of Swifts went by, and at least 30 Sand Martins. Best of all though was this...

This unseasonal Great Northern Diver might well be the first I've seen in July

Initially it was quite distant, and feeding constantly. It was only on the surface for seconds at a time, so picking it up with the camera was really tricky. Gradually it came closer though, finally loafing about for a few minutes at reasonable range before heading out again. It hasn't finished growing new flight feathers yet, so I guess it might be around for a while.



By the time I was nearly back at the car park it was gone 7pm, and I thought birdy thrills were done for the day. Wrong. A few big gulls were wheeling around over the shingle, and I casually raised my bins for a quick look. Ooh! Is that a juv?? It was, and as it banked I got an eyeful of black and white tail. It was a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull...which promptly disappeared over the beach ridge towards the sea. I've been really looking forward to my first juv Yellow-legged Gull of the year and didn't want this chance to slip through my fingers, so forced myself into a sort of shuffly trot up the shingle to the top. It was worth it...

It's the shiny new one on the left


Gulls aren't for everyone, I know, but for me these contrasty beasts are a real treat. Much more neat and crisp than the gingery juv Herring Gulls which will be everywhere pretty soon.

I've included the next couple of photos in order to illustrate an ID feature which I've always found useful on juv YLGs. It's the white area around the upper mandible. When viewed head on, it gives them a white-nosed appearance. It's just a minor feature really, but quite helpful when picking birds out at range if they're facing you.

Juv YLG showing 'white nose'
Really not dross.

When it decided to head for Portland I managed to fluff the flight shots, but hopefully there will be a few more of these beauties to come. Heading for home, I was a happy chap...