Saturday, 17 April 2021

Finding Your Own Birds

This afternoon I found my own Redstart. It didn't happen exactly as I imagined, but pretty close...

A spring male Redstart has been on my 'wanted' list for ages. The last one I saw was at Cogden on April 23rd, 2017. Which sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Four years ago! My excuse is total lack of effort in 2018 and 2019, and total lack of good fortune in 2020. Anyway, this year I have been trying hard. The local coast looks so good for migrant Redstarts, and you would imagine they'd be everywhere. But the reality is different. They might be Common Redstart by name, but common they are not. And part of the problem could simply be the sheer wealth of suitable habbo. At Bex and Cogden alone there are miles and miles of hedgerows like this one...

Lovely, isn't it?

A short, early-morning walk at Cogden had been quiet. Apart from 4 Wheatears the only signs of fresh migrants were a singing Willow Warbler and three Whitethroats - though the latter might have been birds on territory already. But at lunchtime I noticed that Portland had a few new bits and bobs, including two or three Redstarts, which gave me hope for the intended afternoon visit to West Bexington.

I stuck to the east side of the village, and worked every accessible (or visible) hedgerow that I could. I even found a couple of paths I'd never walked before, so it was a little voyage of discovery too...

I saw a phyllosc fly up into a small tree, so peered at the canopy through my bins. There was a movement, but instead of the anticipated phyllosc I could see a load of red belly through the twiggage - and way too much for a Robin! Ha! I know what you are! Yesss! My gorgeous little prize immediately flew up the field and into another tree along the hedge, and vanished. So I waited. Soon enough it popped out into view, dropping briefly into the field to grab some morsel. I snatched a quick burst of shots...

Oof! Look at that! Redstart blur

I sat down in the grass and just watched it for a while. It was rather distant but seemed at ease, so I made no attempt to get any closer. It behaved exactly as you'd expect a migrant Redstart to behave. It sat jauntily in the hedge, all pert loveliness and quivery red tail, and periodically whisked out into the field to grab some wriggly edible. Every single photo is blighted with ghastly heat-haze, but these two less than most...



I moved on eventually, ridiculously pleased with this brief encounter. I couldn't work out whether the odd sense of relief I felt was due to the lifting of some self-imposed pressure, or the satisfaction of a challenging job successfully accomplished. Whatever, my step was weirdly happy and light...

Let's face it, I could have driven to Portland and probably guaranteed myself a Redstart, but this one was a £20 note compared to what would have been a Portland penny. When it comes to value, no comparison. Which is why I am such a zealous advocate of the 'find your own' approach. It's hard to beat the feeling that comes with finding nice birds in the quieter, less-hammered spots.

By this point I had seen very few other migrants. Less than a handful of Willow Warblers was about it. In fact, a scuttling Lizard sp (presumably Common Lizard) was the afternoon's highlight, followed by this...

My first Orange Tip of the year, being very uncooperative.

Wandering into East Bexington territory for a bit, I came across my one and only Wheatear. Obviously it needed photographing...

The heat-haze is immense, so the Wheatear remains small!

At East Bex there are a couple of ditches-cum-hedgerows which basically run straight inland from the sea. They look obvious birdy highways in the wide expanse of open farmland. Here's one of them...

Looking inland from the bottom end. Just a mass of chest-high Alexanders.

The top end includes a hedge which is currently seven or eight feet high.

Imagine an overcast, drizzly spring morning, and a mass arrival of tired little birds. That Alexanders would be absolutely leaping, surely? Hopefully I'll get the chance to find out one day.

Almost two hours after the joyous Redstart happening I was close to the end of my walk. Of course, I had continued to check every hedgerow still. Another Willow Warbler or two, but nothing else. And then...

Hello. What's this, sitting up all pert and perky? Ha!

Miles away! Rubbish light, desperate heat-haze, but...gorgeous male Redstart number two!

Unfortunately I couldn't get any closer and had to make do with these views. But I didn't care. This Redstart had definitely read the script, and fitted perfectly into my imagined scenario: scan hedge; spot bird; get excited. It moved up and down the hedge a bit, but was always distant.

Yeah, I know. Just a couple of Common Redstarts. Regular spring migrant. Nothing special.

Ha ha! You have no idea!

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Twenty-three Thousand Steps

I have one of those Garmin watches which detects long periods of idle sloth and periodically instructs me to 'Move!' Obviously I ignore it. On the other hand it also senses when I am trudging the local area in search of migrants, and counts my steps. Today I managed well over 23,000 - which is massive - and my watch was quick with the commendation:

'You are moving more than a typical Tuesday'

Thanks, watch. Or maybe it wasn't commendation exactly..? Anyway, Burton Bradstock to East Bexington and back, with a couple of detours, is a long and lovely stretch of West Dorset coast and countryside. But first, some catching up...

These last few days I've been a bit slack, or otherwise engaged, and outings have been short and sweet. Not birdless though...

My first Red Kite of the year, inland of the coast road at West Bexington on Saturday afternoon.

With less heat-haze and more skill this might have looked pretty good.

Very distant Red-throated Diver at Cogden, thinking seriously about summer plumage.

P900 focus mechanism threads through much twiggy stuff and finds Wheatear.

Fence posts can look pretty cool.

I keep seeing bee-flies at West Bex, so have made an effort to photograph them. Accidentally I found there are at least two species present...

Dark-edged on the left, Dotted on the right. Not sure I've knowingly seen the latter before.

And so to today.

Slept right through my early alarm, so decided to have breakfast, review last night's nocmig and keep an eye on the local birdy WhatsApp group. There was little of note in the way of nocmig until 04:31, right in the middle of the dawn chorus...

Most of those squiggles are made by Robins, but some are made by a migrant wader (see below).

Meanwhile, out in the field, local birders were enjoying a big arrival of Willow Warblers, along with a few other bits and bobs. Eventually I got amongst it too, but I suspect that many (most?) of the Willow Warblers had already pushed on inland. Still, when the scenery looks like this it's hard not to want to spend a lot of time in it, birds or not...

Look at that sky! That sea! The distant white bits on the left are the chalk cliffs of Beer Head.

For all the hours spent, and the 11 or 12 miles walked, a species list would look a bit slim, but it was just so delightful to be out there today. And to be fair, my count of 58 Wheatears is by far the most I have seen on a spring outing since I've lived in this part of the world. The only other birds I bothered putting a number to were Swallows (5), Whimbrel (6) and Whinchat (1). The last two were my first of the year. Some pics...

Yes, that dark, unpleasant-looking stuff behind the Wheatear is dung. That field has been subject to some serious muck-spreading!

I thought the plumage on this presumed 1st-summer male made a nice change from the spanking adults which usually hog the limelight on here.

Unfortunately a typical NQS fly-by photo, as 6 Whimbrel are spotted a bit too late. More accurately this shot should be called a flown-by photo.

Here's an NQS oddity. A plant. More specifically, an orchid. The gen on this rather lovely thing was kindly given me by the local farmer. To be honest, if I had stumbled across it myself I would have assumed it was an Early Purple Orchid, but that's because I don't know any better. However, it's a Green-winged Orchid, and a new one for me.

Green-winged Orchid

Just the one spike, which somehow makes it even more special.

Oops! Sneaked in another Wheatear. My excuse? The background is the sea. Good enough?

Birdy prize of the day. Distant Whinchat. I watched this bird for several minutes, willing it to move. It remained in that exact spot from start to finish, and barely turned its head. Fat, idle thing.

Finally, here's that nocmig wader again...

Did you spot it?

Certainly the loudest, clearest Common Sand I've recorded so far, and my first of the year. This is what it sounds like...


Today was a nice little taste of spring migrant action. In reality it is still relatively early days, and there must be many millions of birds yet to come. All I can say is, one of them had better be a Redstart with my name on it!

Friday, 9 April 2021

Some Nocmig Quality

Managed two outings to Cogden today, early and late, both a bit rushed. I think it's been three days without a Wheatear, so what a relief to see three this morning!

The first one...

...which quickly joined another. All beach concrete should be decorated like this.

The third one. Already we're getting some very different-looking birds to those a few weeks ago. A bit rusty on the mantle and russet-tinged below.

There had evidently been an arrival of Willow Warblers. I heard a couple singing briefly, and saw six or more; this evening another six, though none singing. Getting photos was tricky this morning, and the only phyllosc which succumbed was a singing Chiffchaff...

When we attempt to vocalise the 'chiff' and 'chaff' sounds which come out of these little beasties we barely part our lips. Look what a Chiffchaff has to do!

Thankfully a Willow Warbler was a tiny bit more cooperative this evening...

Willow Warbler and flowering Blackthorn. For me this combo is synonymous with early April.

Nicely showing off the longer primary projection of Willow Warbler. On Chiffchaff it's probably not much more than half that.

Despite keeping an eye out for them, I have so far failed to see a local Peregrine this year. So it was great to have one dash past this evening. Quite a small bird, so presumably a male, I absolutely nailed the photo...

Peregrine, showing well.

Couldn't resist some non-birdy photos today...

Spot the hare.

To get the most from them, Cowslips are really a hands-and-knees job.

This way to relative solitude, great scenery, and a bird or two.

Or maybe this way...

So, a couple of nice walks, a few birds, but nothing unexpected. And arguably it was rather quiet for the time of year. However, there is always nocmig...

I forgot to switch on the recorder's mains supply last night, so only got what the batteries gave me, which wasn't a lot. With the new microphone on 'phantom power' mode - which drains the batteries even quicker - the recorder died at 00:58. Thankfully my best bird so far this year chose to fly over calling at 00:33. It wasn't loud, but perfectly visible on the sonogram, and when I played it my first thought was 'Excellent. A Fieldfare.' I played it again...and again. Hmmm. Not Fieldfare, I think. Sure enough, a bit of investigation confirmed my suspicions. It was a Ring Ouzel! I've had one previously (October 17th/18th 2020) - it was my best bird last autumn - but I can't help feeling that a spring Ring Ouzel is even better. Here it is...

Ring Ouzel. At the scale I have displayed on the screen when reviewing a night's nocmig recording, these four notes look much nearer to vertical lines. Just over half a second for the whole call. There is plenty of potential to overlook stuff like that!

And this is what it sounds like. Somewhat amplified from the original...


By the time I got to the Ring Ouzel I was already buzzing for a different reason: Common Scoter. Last spring I had a single occurence, and this spring also so far, but both were fairly brief and unspectacular. So I was chuffed to discover a whole minute's worth of Common Scoter on last night's recording. Not loud, but prolonged enough to note the subtle Doppler effect as the birds flew towards, then away from the mic. Here's about 18 seconds' worth of the louder bits, though unfortunately there's a fair bit of background noise too...


So there you go. Not a bad 24 hours of birdy stuff. I genuinely look forward to reviewing a nocmig recording, and the fact that I do not hear the birds 'live' makes absolutely no difference to the pleasure I get from it, nor to the intensity of exhilaration on discovering I've bagged a good 'un. Weird, isn't it?

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Shotgun Shoot-Out

Recently I took the plunge and upgraded my nocmig microphone to a Sennheiser MKE600. It cost a lot more than the trusty Depusheng A2, which set me back a princely 25 quid back in April 2020. Out of curiosity I've been running the old and new mics side by side for a bit, plugging each into one of the stereo channel inputs on my Zoom H4n Pro recorder. Hopefully this is a fairly objective way to compare their performance. I thought the results might be interesting to fellow sufferers, hence this post...

Until recently, this was my kit:

£25 bought me the mic, which came with two mounts (ie. clips to hold it) - which incidentally are both broken now - and the cable. The fluffy windshield was extra (via eBay).


As you can imagine, the Sennheiser is in a different league, but before we get into that I just want to make an important point. It might be cheap, but the Depusheng A2 has done a fantastic job getting me started in nocmig. Last June it was good enough to nail a Night Heron, and here is a compilation of another three of my 2020 favourites: Stone-curlew, Nightjar and Quail...


So yes, the Depusheng is not just some useless toy.

How exactly do the two mics compare? The Sennheiser is a lot shorter, and annoyingly is only 20mm in diameter (compared to the Depusheng's super-handy 22mm) so won't fit snugly into my Heath-Robinson mic mount made from plumbing pipe clips. A massive downer which almost made me send it back, of course.

The Sennheiser MKE600 comes with a mount and a foam windshield only, so you still need to shell out for a cable and a furry windshield.

Right, to the nitty-gritty...

I simply plugged both mics into my recorder, using cables with standard XLR (3-pin) mic connectors. Mostly the Sennheiser went into channel 1 (left) and the the Depusheng into channel 2 (right), though I did swap them over once or twice.The Depusheng is switched to 'normal'.

Results
In a nutshell, the Sennheiser is far more sensitive, and has less background hiss. The upside of that is its ability to pick up sounds which the Depusheng misses. However, the obvious corollary is an increased tendency to be affected by unwanted, non-birdy noises, and by wind. Even so, bird sounds were always discernible - quite obvious on a sonogram, and perfectly audible too. Here are few direct comparisons of specific bird sounds recorded by both mics over the last couple of weeks...


And a spectrovid comparison of the loudest calls (the two double-pillars on the right) - MKE600 first...


So, that's an example of something loud and obvious. In reality the Depusheng was just fine really. Obviously I would certainly have noticed those calls while reviewing the sonogram on Audacity. That Moorhen was nailed, whichever mic I was using.

How about something not quite as loud, like the lovely Golden Plover vocals from a couple of nights back?

Golden Plover. The scale and 'noise' in all these sonograms is exactly as it would appear on my laptop when reviewing a night's recording.
Detailed comparison of the loudest Golden Plover phrase (the third set in the image above)

The Sennheiser's sensitivity is beginning to tell now. Interestingly there is still some nice detail in the Depusheng sonogram, despite its reduced volume. This is what the two sound like...


Now for some much trickier ones. Redwing, Common Scoter and Wigeon follow. Rather than discuss each individually, I shall let the images and spectrovids do the talking. However, it will be pretty obvious that in each case I would have struggled with the Depusheng mic alone. I would have missed a whole flock of Wigeon, the Scoter, and probably two or three out of the seven Redwings.




 

Needless to say, this comparison has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I was especially surprised at the Wigeon. They are basically invisible on the Depusheng sonogram, and inaudible on the video, but easily detectable (and identifiable) on the Sennheiser recording. Very telling I thought. It makes me wonder what I've missed over the last 12 months. That said, considering the quality birds I didn't miss, I'm certainly not complaining. And that cheap mic is a fine way to dip a toe in the nocmig water without breaking the bank.

PS. Apologies for the dreadful hiss on some of the vids. In order to make them louder I turned up the gain a bit too much I think!

PPS. On the videos you will notice a regular clicking sound on the Depusheng recordings. I don't know what is causing it, but it's just a nuisance rather than a major problem. Certainly the Depusheng has been perfectly okay up until now, and I'm happy to keep it as a reserve mic.

Hope that's been helpful to at least one or two readers.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

So Much To Learn...

It was Monday, 13th April 2020. That was the date I first switched on a nocmig recorder and stuck it outside for the night. In a bucket. With batteries. It was all a bit of a disaster if I'm honest. But that faltering step was the first on a long, steep learning curve which I have thoroughly enjoyed. And here we are almost a year later, a few steps further along.

Following the odd night's effort in February, I started in earnest on March 1st. The kit has been out every night bar one (weather too awful) and I thought it might be interesting to share the results so far...


No megas in that lot, but several pleasing records, and one or two surprises. Like two occurences of Common Gull on 29th, and Jackdaw twice. Curlew on five nights, Oystercatcher and Wigeon on three, Redshank on two, and a lovely Golden Plover call on 5th are all worthy of mention. Of the rallids, Coot and Water Rail are both scarce, but Moorhen is almost expected. And it's been good to get a spring passage of Redwing; those seven on 28th are my most recent, so perhaps they're finished now. And finally, a single occurence of Common Scoter on 26th, the species which originally got so many of us out in the garden after dark last spring.

If you had asked me a year ago what species I thought might fly over my garden at night, few on that list would have occured to me. Not only has nocmig opened my eyes to new things, it has also taught me so much about vocalisations. For example, today I really surprised myself. Someone on the nocmig WhatsApp group posted a mystery recording, and before he had even typed out his question I knew it was a Stone-curlew! Yet I never hear Stone-curlew locally. In fact I need only two or three fingers to count the number of times in my whole life that I've heard one in the field! But the nocmig bird I had here last year is etched indelibly in my mental sound library, and I recognised the similarity instantly. On the other hand, nocmig reveals the many, many gaps in my knowledge too. Analysing last night's recording earlier, I came across this...

So, what's this, warbling away at 02:46?
[PS. That's a faint Moorhen at 14:46:35]

Even before I played it I knew this was something new to me; the shapes were totally unfamiliar. I was none the wiser after playing it. Here it is...


I needed to tap the expertise of the WhatsApp group members, who identified it as Golden Plover song. Sure enough, I found near-enough identical recordings on Xeno Canto. However, later today I learned that our local wintering Golden Plover can be heard making this sound in flight. I can honestly say I have never consciously heard it before. Is that simply because I've never actually listened properly? Nocmig has opened my ears, for sure.


I've done a lot of birding in the last couple of days. Three outings, probably eight or nine hours in total. My tally in all that time comprises:

Willow Warbler 1
Blackcap 21
Chiffchaff 25
Sandwich Tern 4
Swallow 4
White Wagtail 1
Great Crested Grebe 1

Obviously there was other stuff, but that's all I recorded. No Wheatears at all, hardly any hirundines. Bit of a struggle really. And yet it hasn't bothered me one bit. Firstly, I know it's a temporary thing, and migration will get going again soon enough. But secondly - and mainly - I've come to appreciate that the getting out and walking is at least as important to me as seeing birds. And as I pottered around Cogden and West Bex this evening I found myself looking at common birds and realising how little I know about their breeding habits. Strewth, I am so ignorant! Take Linnet. Where does it nest, exactly? On the ground? Off the ground? I could make an educated guess, but I don't actually know. What do its eggs look like? No idea. How many does it usually lay? Do both sexes sit on them? How many broods? Er...

Pitiful.

As regular readers will know, I can give you chapter and verse on the tricky nuances of Caspian Gull ID, but when it comes to basic knowledge of our commonest birds, there are big empty spaces. It's actually quite humbling.

Anyway, this is what happens when the birding is a bit tepid. You get to thinking about things you shouldn't. Once the migrants begin to flow again I shall forget all about how little I know. And will probably think I'm quite clever if I am fortunate enough to find something scarce.

Anyway, enough introspection. Here is why the simple action of getting out and walking is such good medicine...

Looking west this evening. NQS readers must be getting tired of photos like these. Sorry.

Looking east.

In the last two days I've taken photos of just two birds. One was yesterday's White Wagtail. The other was this...

Great Crested Grebe off West Bex this evening.


I've posted both these photos because they are from the same burst of three shots, and illustrate another situation which benefits from the P900's 'high speed burst' setting: a bird bobbing up and down in lumpy water. For obvious reasons.