Friday, 31 December 2021

2021 - Lazy Review

I went fishing today (3 small Grayling) and this evening had a catch-up scroll through Twitter. It is stiff with end-of-year birdy tweets. Lots of 2021 highlights/summaries, and plenty of 2022 statements of intent. I am too lazy to follow that lead, so here is a quick blog post instead.

Favourite Bird

Er...probably this one...

Cogden's Greenland Redpoll

Confiding, tricky, and massively under-appreciated. I loved it. I can think of several other birds which for different reasons were also favourites, but if I had to pick one...

Favourite Find

No contest: Tree Cricket! Discovering a little colony of Tree Crickets at West Bexington was brilliant fun. Also tricky; also massively under-appreciated.

Melodious Warbler was great, but too brief and uncooperative. Caspian Gull was great, but - to my shame - identified after the fact. Stone-curlew was simply great - excellent adrenaline rush, and stayed long enough for Mike and Alan to enjoy too, but Tree Cricket still topped it.

Favourite Cock-up

Again, no contest: Peregrine Falcon. A serious dose of the shakes with that one. And I wonder how many other birders in 2021 managed to turn a Peregrine into a BirdGuides Mega-Alert for a few hours?

Favourite Non-Orthopteran Insect Find

Female Lesser Emperor. Tough competition from Cogden Chalk Hill Blue, Lulworth Skipper and Southern Migrant Hawker, but the Lesser Emperor wins it. Insects were an unexpected delight throughout the summer, and three of that lot were lifers. I hope insects feature again in 2022.

Favourite Wheeze

A clear winner...

Just a couple of sea anglers going about their everyday angling business, right? Look closely.

I see a lot of sea anglers along the Chesil Beach, but this is the first time I've seen anyone do this...

Why bother risking a pulled muscle from that pendulum cast with triple salchow and flip, when there is a far more relaxed way?

Yep, she held the rod and spooled out line while he piloted the bait out towards the French coast.

Favourite Plan

The one for tomorrow. Tomorrow I will step out of the door and walk. I will take my bins, my camera, some refreshments, and I will look at birds all day. And that's it.

If you have got this far, thank you for reading. Throughout 2021 this blog has been a pleasure to write, and knowing that people read it is surprisingly gratifying. All the best for 2022...

Saturday, 25 December 2021

Keeping the Flame Alight

Exactly one year ago I spent the whole day fishing for Grayling on the River Frome. Blissful solitude and a few fish. Commitments this year dictated that I went yesterday instead. One other angler, a friendly 75 year-old. It rained a lot. I only caught one small Grayling, and got very wet. There were a few out-of-season Sea Trout though...

Small sample of solid silver Sea Trout

A pound and a half or so, and a bit more colourful

As a boy, fishing held a fascination I now find difficult to describe and impossible to recapture. While the adult me is equally content to spend hours attempting to extract some gleaming bar of wonder from its inaccessible world, to marvel at it for a moment, then slip it back, in my memory the boyhood version was so much more consumed by the whole experience. Now, I feel a little detached somehow. Like a grown-up in a childhood playground...

Still, I would like one day to catch a Grayling of 2lb or more, and the Frome certainly contains such fish. The chap I spoke to yesterday has caught three of that size in the last two months. I shall try again.

Interestingly, though I find it difficult to completely lose myself in fishing these days, birding is a different matter. And I see no danger of imminent phasing. The approach I've adopted this past couple of years has worked well for me. Its efficacy shows no sign of waning, so I shall stick with what seems a winning formula.

There are so many ways to 'go birding'. I follow a lot of birders on Twitter, and their various approaches probably embrace most of the obvious options. Some are basically glued to a patch, and rarely if ever go anywhere else except on holiday. Some travel a great deal, and every well-publicised rarity will at some stage appear on their Twitter output. Some are very focused on record keeping: BirdTrack, eBird, every BTO survey type thing going. Some are clearly very social creatures, and friends feature regularly. Some concentrate on photography, or sound recording, or specialise in certain species or species groups. Though I obviously cannot say for sure, I assume that these various approaches 'do it for them' as individuals, and they find the fulfilment they need.

Having struggled over the years - often unsuccessfully - to maintain enthusiasm for birding, I am quite conscious of that need for fulfilment, and pander to it all the time now. The best thing I ever did for it was remove the notion of 'boundaries' to my birding. Looking back, it was like taking off a straitjacket. Almost all my birding is still local, but now so unconstrained that calling anywhere my 'patch' feels quite fraudulent. That said, apart from work (which takes me to Seaton and the Axe Estuary) I am nearly always within 10km of home. This map pretty much covers it...

I live in Bridport (just left of centre)

So I'm a local birder, but don't have a patch. I count stuff sometimes and, after years of not bothering, now submit records again. I do not do any surveys of any sort - I have tried it and hated it. I do not chase lists any more - I have tried it and hated it. I rarely do company, much preferring solitude. I rarely twitch anything these days, though local birds have tempted me once or twice. However, if you met me in the field I do hope you would not think 'Strewth! This bloke is one miserable, non-conformist old so-and-so', but rather that I left a somewhat better impression! Anyway, this approach works for me. It keeps me sane and happy, and keeps me birding.

Finally, in this rambling post, I must mention something which caught my eye recently, and which seems to mesh nicely with my currently successful approach to birding...

#LocalBigYear - an initiative launched by Birdwatch magazine

It was so good to see an influential, mainstream publication say this:

Importantly, reducing our annual mileage has clear benefits for the heath of our planet. We must all look for ways to reduce our carbon footprint - and a greater focus on local birding is a fine way of doing just that, especially if you can do much of it on foot or by bike.

Best of all, there are no strict rules. Local just means local. Yay! No boundaries! There are prizes for local find of the year, local inland find of the year, local birding moment of the year and garden bird of the year. But nothing for big lists. Yay! No listing! There is a prize for green twitch of the year, but nothing to encourage fossil fuel excess. It sounds like something I could easily get involved in, without endangering my state of birdy zen.

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Down on the Farm

Before moving here in 2002 I never gave a lot of thought to farmland and how it is used. I do now. Between every local town and village are great swathes of the stuff. Obviously I know very little about the nuts and bolts of farming, or what it takes to make a farm profitable, but I can see easily enough the impact that East Devon/West Dorset farming practice in general has had on the countryside. And it ain't good. Acres and acres of ecological desert. During the various lockdowns I made a conscientious effort to get out in the local farmland to see what I could find in the way of birds and other wildlife. Most of the time it was depressing in the extreme. I'm not going to go on about it here though, because let's face it, what's the point? And anyway, for once I actually have a good news tale about farmland...

A couple of weeks ago I heard about a decent flock of Bramblings and other finches, not far from Bridport. The only clue was that they were feeding on sunflowers. A bit of detective work suggested where I ought to look, and this morning was the first chance I've had to follow up my hunch. I parked up just a few miles from home, and then walked through the farmland on public rights of way. Apart from some distant shooting and a chainsaw or something, it was dead quiet, and there was a noticeable lack of livestock. However there were a few birds, and eventually I stumbled upon a small flock of Bramblings...

Bramblings. There were 8-10 others with these two.

At this point I had seen no sunflowers, but it felt like I was getting warm. Sure enough, not too much further on was a field full of them. And a swirling mass of finches...

Mostly Linnets here, a fraction of the 400+ present.

Hundreds of Linnets, Goldfinches and Chaffinches; lots of Greenfinches and many Bramblings, plus at least two Reed Buntings and a helping of House Sparrows. What a wonderful display! Birds were clearly focused on the sunflowers, but spreading further afield too. I almost forgot to mention a lovely flock of 40+ Stock Doves also. Elsewhere I encountered Redwings and Fieldfares - including a flock of 50+ of the latter - as well as a couple of Grey Wagtails and a Jay. It was so refreshing to come across farmland with loads of actual birds in it!

Best of all I met the farmer - a really friendly bloke - who sketched out their eco-friendly plans for the place now that they've left dairy behind. It sounded marvellous! I shall certainly be back. Often, probably.

A few pics...

House Sparrows and Chaffinch. Spot the Brambling!

Great to see so many Greenfinches (and another lurking Brambling)

Bramblings again

Such a lovely sight!



Fieldfare being typically coy. Amazed it tolerated me this close.

In many ways, the best part of today's little outing was how unexpectedly well my effort was rewarded. Bird-wise I have come to expect very little of the local farmland. Or rather, nothing. Because it seems almost universally dire. This was such a delight, such a breath of fresh air. I can hardly wait to see what the future holds for the place. Just brilliant!

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Having a Gander at Geese

A birding life spent largely in the London area and East Devon/West Dorset is not going to be packed with proper wild geese. So recent news of a flock of 34 European White-fronts in the Otter Valley north of Budleigh Salterton was definitely of interest to me, if only as a heads-up that there may be others about more locally. Certainly I didn't contemplate travelling over to see them.

I've just trawled through my scant records from 19 years of on/off birding down here to see how many times wild geese and I have crossed paths. This is what I found:

2005

Amazingly my first local bird was a juv Tundra Bean Goose. A bunch of us found it at Lower Bruckland Ponds on a Jan 1st 'big day' (or thought we did - it had actually been seen the previous day as well). It hung around for a while, and on 10th Jan I saw it on the Axe Estuary at Coronation Corner too.

On 25th Jan the soft calls of a flock of White-fronts distracted me from a Sibe Chiff hunt at Colyton WTW. I looked up as a flock of 30 birds flew over W, circled back E again (I am pretty sure they were contemplating touch-down) before eventually heading away W up the Coly Valley. Oh, for a camera in those days!  Meanwhile that morning, Steve was discovering a pair of young Surf Scoters on the sea off Weston and trumping my geese quite severely!

2006

A fluctuating February flock of European White-fronts spent several days on Colyford Marsh, peaking at 15 birds.

2007

Two adult European White-fronts on Colyford Marsh again, for a few days in December.

2008

European White-front again, a single youngster on the Axe Estuary with 5 Greylags in March.

At this point it is beginning to look like wild geese are an annual thing for me, but no - I cannot find any others in my records. I know I did see at least one more - a Greenland White-front which Steve found on Colyford Marsh - but I'm not sure when. My next encounter with a genuine wild bird was a Pink-footed Goose at West Bay in October (I think) 2019, and another on the Axe and at East Bexington (almost certainly the same bird at both locations) in October 2020. And I think that's my lot.

So, when I unexpectedly finished all my pre-Xmas work in Seaton early this afternoon, and found myself thinking about where it might be nice to stop for lunch, er...

Three of the 34 European White-fronts frequenting the Lower Otter Restoration Project area. The habitat looks pretty good already, and is greatly enhanced by the gentle laughter bubbling from this flock of beauties.

A few more, including some nicely barred adults.

Quite a neck on them when they're alert.

Even at 14:15 the light was dismal on this grey day, but it was great to get at least a few shots as a memento of what is apparently the biggest flock of White-fronts in Devon in almost 40 years!

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Good & Gooder

A few minutes on the BBC News app this morning was enough to do my head in a bit, so I've been ferreting around in the world of bird stuff for something to relieve the pain. A few offerings...

I'll start with my own recent birdy joys. This past week I've had very little spare time, but spent maybe an hour with the Chiffchaffs at Colyton sewage works, and similar at Kilmington. A number of Chiffs, but still no Sibes. A few bonus Goldcrests and a Treecreeper were nice though. The Axe Estuary gulls have had a scan or three, but while I've yet to winkle out anything exciting, I photographed this yesterday...

White L:CJ1 is from a Great Black-backed Gull project in Cornwall. Awaiting details.

Gulls are so cool. Their colour rings are often quite easy to read, and searching for them adds an extra level of interest to any flock of dross.

Talking of gulls...

Currently there is a 1st-winter Caspian Gull visiting Sutton Bingham Reservoir on the Somerset/Dorset border. I think it has turned up on something like six afternoons out of the last seven, so guess what? It has attracted a 'crowd'! According to reports on Twitter, birders and toggers blocked the road today; traffic jam, the lot*. Twitchers flocked, as the saying goes. I am always chuffed when a gull (those creatures which even many birders love to hate) pulls in a crowd. And when it's a subtle beastie like a Casp, I am pretty sure that quite a few trotting over to have a look will need a bit of reassurance that they're actually photographing the correct bird. But they still go. Such is the draw of Larid quality. I do love a crowd-pleasing gull.

There's another good gull in Weymouth right now. An Iceland Gull is making regular appearances on my Twitter feed, and again it's great to see a gull getting good press.

Also on Twitter today was a little video of a preening Med Gull, and a comment to the effect that Meds are always a treat to watch. And that from an experienced birder who sees many. Love it!

Please, please, always look at gulls. They have so much to offer...

One of my favourite gull photos ever. Taken on the Axe Estuary in 2007. Even if the brown ones leave you cold, there's always the chance of something a bit easier...

Finally, this...


I've come across quite a few young birders on Twitter (that's 'young' as in 25 or under) and am pleased to say that at least some of them seem to have resisted the spurious and over-hyped glamour of rarity chasing. And when I see an initiative like this it does my cynical old heart good. And makes me smile for a nice reason.

Before I go, a quick thank-you to those who have in various ways said complimentary things about the recent series of NQS posts on the bird news saga. It has been very encouraging, and is much appreciated.

Finally finally, I had my COVID booster jab at 10:00 this morning. Jabs one and two hammered me somewhat, with around 36-48 hours of assorted nastiness, but thus far the booster has given me no more than a hefty punch on the arm. So I am hoping for a restful night. If I get one, today's goodness factor will go from 7/10 to almost 8...

* Example of hyperbole.

Monday, 13 December 2021

Bird News - Part 6: Filthy Lucre

Let's get one thing straight: the bird news industry was inevitable. Even before they had to pay for it, birders were already prepared to jump through at least modest hoops to get the latest gen. For example, the grapevine demanded communication skills. So the timid overcame shyness and talked to complete strangers; the naturally taciturn made an effort to be friendly with others; the selfish learned the need to reciprocate, and so on. If socially awkward birders were prepared to get out of their comfort zone for bird news, well yes, obviously there was money in it.

How much money?

Who knows? I certainly don't. I suppose I could reference the January 1993 Independent newspaper article mentioned in THIS post, which reports that Lee Evans was earning about £30k a year from Birdline (roughly £65k today) but I suspect this is the tip of an iceberg. In 2021 certainly, quite a few incomes must be funded by the bird news market.

In a sense I suppose the founders of Birdline invented that market. Once a group of individuals took it upon themselves effectively to centralise bird news and require payment for supplying it, that was that - bird news was now a commodity. There was absolutely no going back. And what a fascinating business model...

As Richard Millington wrote in A Twitcher's Diary:

Twitchers cannot exist without the goodwill of the birdwatchers who are the lucky finders of the more exciting birds. It is these generous and unselfish birdwatchers who start the telephone 'grapevine' working...

With the inception of Birdline a few years later, I doubt that much changed here. Most birders are 'generous and unselfish' when it comes to sharing their finds, and I am sure that such 'goodwill' continued. Though I am mildly curious to know if anyone ever phoned the Bird Information Service hotline and enquired how much their newly-discovered Desert Wheatear might be worth...

I imagine the answer was 'not much'. One way or another, the well-connected Birdline staff would soon get to hear about it anyway - for nothing I expect - and then sell it to anyone willing to dial 0898 700222.

Extreme rarities must have been especially welcome. And long stayers. And birds with long names. And those which entailed an elaborate set of directions. In fact, anything which induced you to ring the dreaded number in the first place, and then kept you on the phone! I came to despise the sound of that voice, and its almost cynically slow delivery.

As with any other market, once established, there were plenty of players wanting in. Two or three examples...

In 1988 I moved to Rickmansworth, Herts. At that time my birding zeal was minimal, yet I was still approached by one of the three founders of a new 'regional' bird news phone-line type service to check that I would give them first dibs on any news I had. Shortly afterwards I learned that this new service was now...er...'unable' to proceed in a fully independent fashion, and instead would become one of several regional birdlines in the Bird Information Service stable. Hmmm. No doubt there's an interesting story here.

A well-known twitcher who suddenly and unexpectedly found himself with a great deal of thinking time discovered that telecomms supplier Mercury offered a cheaper premium rate phone service than BT. Game on! For a while in the early 1990s my go-to birdline number was a little easier on the wallet. And the voice of Franko Maroevic made a nice change.

By 1990 loads of birders were basically skint. Bank loans for the third kitchen refurb in as many years were becoming harder to get. Birdline was simply a bottomless pit, into which bird news addicts poured money faster than they could earn it. Something had to be done. A delegation was dispatched to Norwich. Soft-hearted philanthropist Dick Filby was moved to tears by the plight of these hapless folk, and immediately founded Rare Bird Alert, a subscription-based pager service. Finally! A bird news service which you could budget for.

Anyway, a lot has happened in the intervening 30 years, and many players have have come and gone. In 2021 it seems perfectly normal to pay for bird news. Long gone are the dark days of Birdline, with its potentially addictive grip and limitless spend. And let's be honest, modern technology is simply amazing. If you discovered a drake Harlequin Duck tomorrow morning, within minutes your photos could be on Twitter, where they would be picked up by the ever-vigilant bods at RBA and BirdGuides, and the joyous news of your good fortune punted out to their vast army of subscribers. Great. Happy subscribers = money in the bank. You, meanwhile, will earn nothing. Well, no, not true actually. You will earn kudos. And that warm glow which rewards the 'generous and unselfish' spirit.

If, in any of the above, you have detected a hint of irony (or - heaven forbid - sarcasm) possibly that is because I am getting old. Old people have this tendency to look back at the days of yore through rose-tinted spectacles, and to have a Bah! Humbug! attitude to anything modern, slick and efficient. Well, there is little doubt that the modern bird news industry is slick and efficient. And yes, there is a rosy tint to my view of the grapevine days when bird news was free. But in truth, the rarity-obsessed numbers game which epitomises birding back then is just as prevalent today, if not more so. It might have seemed relatively innocent forty years ago, but it is exactly what spawned the whole bird news industry in the first place. And in a time when our understanding of what is happening to this planet tells us we ought to be throttling back massively, a number of individuals - friends and acquaintances of many of us - make their living from an industry which encourages us to do the opposite. Many today feel that the birding ethos which held sway back then - and still does now - needs to change. However, I cannot help thinking that when bird news became a commodity, the chances of instituting such a change dwindled away. A huge genie escaped the confines of its lamp, and I cannot see it climbing back in of its own accord.

Sunday, 12 December 2021

Fun Things

It has been a challenge to get much blog material out of the last couple of weeks' birding. But here goes...

After what was seemingly a good autumn for them I'm hopeful of a Siberian Chiffchaff or two, but efforts so far have drawn a blank. The closest I got was at Kilmington WTW last week. An elusive, pale and interesting bird in Thursday afternoon's drizzly murk failed to show at all the following day.

Gulls have been few, and desperately unremarkable. And that's all I have to say about gulls.

The one exception to this everyday-ness has been the West Bex bunting flock, with which I have spent a few interesting hours. But they're tricky. They come and go a lot, and I've yet to see more than 15-20 birds at any one time, frequently less. Clearly they have a few other feeding spots. I've really struggled to get any photos, but finally managed a handful this afternoon, despite the dull conditions...

Female Cirl Bunting with Yellowhammer

Female Cirl, with olive-grey rump on view

As above, following a quick twirl

At first glance it is hard to believe that the Cirl Bunting on the deck is the same as the one photographed in the hedge, but I think it is. Still, I cannot explain why it looks noticeably more yellow in those last two shots.

Last Friday week (3rd December) I had brief scope views of two females together, and have been hoping for a repeat performance ever since. So far, no deal. That same day - in two hours - I also had single females twice. And ever since, I've only managed single females. These birds ain't easy. In fact it has reached the stage where I'm beginning to ask searching questions about that sighting of two. Unfortunately the male which featured in THIS post has not been seen again.

Spot the Cirl Bunting

It has definitely been worth lugging the scope down there. The variability in Yellowhammer plumage is quite something, and well worth a proper grilling. For example, that bird on the left in the last pic has very little yellow in its plumage, but a scope quickly prevents any putative Pine Bunting-induced hyperventilation - the yellow fringes on the primaries are quite obvious.

All good fun.

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Bird News - Part 5: Birdline

Some time in 1986, the recently-privatised BT (or British Telecom as it was then) introduced premium rate telephone services. Prior to this, the money you paid for a phone call went to BT*. A premium rate number was different. A percentage went to BT, but most of the revenue went to whomever the number was registered to, i.e., the service provider. The technology required to turn bird news into money was finally here.

Birdline was an early premium rate service. Its original number is etched indelibly in a dusty corner of my brain...

0898 700222

How did Birdline begin? Inevitably there is a story here, but it's not mine to tell. So, for the moment at least, I'm planning to concentrate on the fact that it did begin, rather than how. Having said that, there is one documented version I can offer...

You can find it in the Independant newspaper of 27th January 1993. A piece entitled 'Twitcher devotes his life to an obsessive flight of fancy' features the activities of one Mr Lee Evans, 32, of Little Chalfont, Bucks. The article reports that Mr Evans spent 11 years searching for a way to fund his passion for twitching, and then finally...

Inspiration came in 1986 when he quit his job as a design stylist at Vauxhall Motors to open an 0891** 'Birdline', recording up-to-the-minute sightings.

Obviously the usual caveats apply regarding what you read in newspapers.

Anyway, by early 1991 Birdline was in its fifth year, and milking me dry. I really wasn't a full-on twitcher, but even now I can hear Richard Millington's leaden drawl as he confirms that yes, I have reached Birdline, and that this is the mid-morning update of the exact day I think it is, before plodding laboriously through the rare bird news. Rare birds that are of no interest to me, or too far away, or have been present for a month already. A small fortune later, I can rest easy that I don't need to rush to Kent this afternoon. Still, it is September, and there's loads of stuff about, so probably I ought to check again in a couple of hours...

How much did it cost to phone the 'line?

In 1991 it was 33p/min cheap rate, and 44p/min peak/standard rate. Very roughly that's the equivalent of 75p/min and £1.00/min respectively in 2021.  The following year saw an increase to 36p/min and 48p/min. But that was fine, because you were paying for 'news you can trust, from the team you know', as the service's tagline put it.

In 1992 the 'team you know' apparently included six of the top twelve British life-list holders, three BBRC members and nine county recorders and committee members. Which demonstrates just how deeply the whole twitching, listing, rarity-centred ethos was embedded into the British birding establishment.

So, one minute we were just ringing our mates for bird news, or Nancy's, or accosting random birders with a cheery 'Anything about, mate?' and the next, paying through the nose for it. Looking back, there was little if any resistance to the switch. As someone commented on the previous post, it could be argued that Birdline brought order to chaos. Maybe. But it did other things too.

But that's for another post...


*  BT lost its monopoly in 1982, so theoretically your phone call might have been generating revenue for another telecomms provider from that point on.

**  Premium rate numbers changed from 0898 prefix to 0891 in the early 1990s.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Bird News - Part 4: Ripe for the Plucking

I'll start with an apology, because I'm going to be a little untrue to the closing sentence of my last post; this one isn't quite going to be about Birdline. It struck me that I ought first to paint a picture of the early-1980s birding scene in order to demonstrate the inevitability of what was to follow. Obviously this is a personal take, so it's highly likely some of my contemporaries will have a different view. But for any younger readers, hopefully it will provide some insight, and maybe food for thought...

In 1981, when my enthusiasm for birding really took off, I was 22 years old. And I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of birders I met in the field back then were more or less of the same generation, i.e., predominantly young.

The vibrant grapevine and the very existence of the Nancy's hub illustrate the strength of that 'need to know' what's about - especially rarities - and speak volumes about the birding ethos of the day. Seeing 'new' birds was a massive thing. Listing, ticking and twitching were regular topics of conversation, and some popular contemporary literature basically encouraged it all. For example, I would say the three most influential books on me at that time were Discover Birds (1979) by Ian Wallace, Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book (1980) and A Twitcher's Diary (1981) by Richard Millington. I still have all three...

Discover Birds. While in no way promoting twitching, DIM Wallace's enthusiasm made me hungry for birdy drama. The book featured North Norfolk and its birds - reinforcing my desire to go there - and introduced me to Walberswick. And his thrilling account of 1st May 1978 at Flamborough Head effectively conveyed the excitement to be had from a hatful of rare and scarce birds.

Bill Oddie's LBBB. To the youthful me, this terrific little book basically said 'twitching is cool'. Rereading the relevant chapters now, it still does.

A Twitcher's Diary. The book is exactly that. Richard Millington's 1980 quest for 300 species in a year was an absolute inspiration. Full of birds I could only dream of, it revealed what was possible.

For me, this book was the new birder's equivalent of an Argos catalogue. Fatal.

So there you have it. My early influences. The birding clan was mostly young, and driven by an engine which had been steadily revving up through the 1970s: twitching. And I found myself very much up for the ride, along with loads of my contemporaries.

But, as I mentioned in the last post, bird news was still basically free. Despite the obviously massive demand for it (would 'aching need' be an exaggeration?) there was no obvious way to turn bird news into money. Well, not yet...

I don't know much about telecommunications technology, but I do know that all we had back then were landlines. By the early 1980s I would imagine most homes had a phone, but certainly not all. Otherwise you had to rely on public phone boxes, many of which were typically vandalised, or toilets, or both. In May 1985 I made my first ever calls from a car phone. A BMW-owning birder at Staines invited me to use his to phone out news of a couple of Temminck's Stints. I've not used one since, and they were incredibly rare even then. A few home phones had a facility for leaving a message. My memory pictures a tiny little cassette tape (on which you recorded your greeting, along with the sad news that you were currently out and therefore unable to do anything with the gripping gen the caller was about to share) plus a lot of flashing lights and unreliability.

So that's the technology side of things. Not quite ready...

Interestingly, A Twitcher's Diary contains a dedication. I quote:

Dedicated to-
The finders of rare birds - many whose names I do not know, but without whose unselfish attitude twitching could not exist and this book would not have been written. Thank you.

And the preface contains the following paragraph:

Twitchers cannot exist without the goodwill of the birdwatchers who are the lucky finders of the more exciting birds. It is these generous and unselfish birdwatchers who start the telephone 'grapevine' working, so that other people can come and enjoy the birds that they have found.

Ironically, the unstinting 'goodwill' of these 'generous and unselfish' folk was just about to become a vital element in a fascinating business model. Just as soon as the technology was ready...

Next: yes, definitely Birdline next.

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Bird News - Part 3: Nancy's

Nancy's Café was the oddest bird news hub that you could possibly imagine. I cannot do justice to its idiosyncratic excellence here, and recommend Mark Cocker's Birders - Tales of a Tribe, where it features prominently. Suffice to say, the telephone number of this modest, Cley-based emporium of cheap eats was once writ large in the front of every twitchy birder's notebook...

0263 740767

In the previous post I probably gave the impression that the grapevine was basically a network of individual birders. Mostly it was, but with one or two notable exceptions. For example, on occasion you might call a bird observatory and ask if there was much about. Fraught with danger though, especially if the phone was picked up by some twitcher-hating wind-up merchant.

'Yes mate, ten Golden Orioles in the trapping area, two Subalps and a Sardinian Warbler. Do drop by.'

And then there was Nancy's.

Next to the Nancy's Café telephone was a log, with all the latest bird news listed out. Anyone seated near the phone knew the score: answer the phone; read out the news. On the other hand, if fresh gen was being phoned in, make a note in the log and call it out to the room. Nancy's operated on a 'quid pro quo' basis. For example, if you successfully twitched the Wilson's Phalarope, you found a public call-box, coughed up ten pence and phoned an update through to Nancy's. At the same time of course, you would hear the latest gen.

Looking back, Nancy's Café strikes me simply as a serendipitous product of its time. Its location , Cley next the Sea, was already a focal point for birders, and those birders were inevitably attracted by the prospect of good-value grub. The proprietress, Nancy Gull, was happy to let the birders use the phone as a bird news hotline, and those birders were as eager for bird news as for beans on toast. Win-win.

The photo of this vintage clipping was kindly sent to me many years ago by Tom McKinney...

Nancy on the right. And look at that phone. It has a proper dial!

Thus far in the bird news saga there has been no real talk of money. Okay, yes, it cost a few pence to make a call, and every birder in those days had a small stock of 10p coins for the public call-box, whether that was to let your mates know about the Velvet Scoter you had just found on the reservoir, or to get a rarity update from Nancy's. But we are talking peanuts. And in the early 1980s, peanuts was just about all you could possibly spend on bird information. However, that was about to change. And change mightily.

Next: Mammon. Oops, I mean Birdline.

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Bird News - Part 2: The Grapevine

In a cathartic act of heresy I ditched all my old notebooks several years ago, so can no longer view the list of names and telephone numbers at the beginning of each. They were my bird news contacts. My precious links to the grapevine.

Though I don't consciously recall it, there must have been a time when I had zero contacts, a blank page. But gradually, mainly through regular visits to the Staines area in West London, I began to meet other birders and acquire a few contacts. I guess this began to happen from autumn 1981 on. At this stage I wasn't much of a twitcher, but nevertheless keen to know what was about. 

As the months and years passed, and my interest in twitching grew, the grapevine became ever more vital. Like anyone else with a 'need to know' about the latest rarities, I was always on the lookout for those extra-special contacts, those birders with access to branches of the grapevine otherwise closed to me. In those pre-digital times it was all very well learning that there was a Stilt Sandpiper at some place called Frodsham, but where on earth was that? And even if you found it on a map, you still needed to know where to park, and where exactly the bird was. Enter Bob Eckersley of Leeds, my prized 'northern contact'. I don't recall us ever meeting, but there were plenty of telephone conversations. Ditto Paul, my excellent Lea Valley and East London contact. Back then there was an unhappy disconnect between West and East London for some reason, but our telephone link bridged it quite well.

It all sounds rather clunky and primitive doesn't it? And it was. But it worked.

So, here is a real-life example of the grapevine in action...

Staines Res in the early 1980s. North basin on the left.

It is 14th October 1982, a Thursday. The north basin of Staines Res has been slowly emptying over the past two or three months, and looks amazing, like a massive inland estuary. I notice that the Dunlin flock is unusually close to the causeway this afternoon, so have a go at counting them...

Thirty-five, thirty-six... Hello, what's this?

Long story short: it's a Baird's Sandpiper!

Present on the causeway were myself, Sandra, Jon Herbert and Gordon Richards. We took a while to settle confidently on the identification, but it helped that Sandra and I had seen our first Baird's as recently as August - an adult at Salthouse in Norfolk - so the diagnostic features were pretty fresh in our minds. But obviously we were still very cautious. This was a serious London rarity!

In 2021 it is easy to predict what would happen next. There would be photos taken and uploaded straight from camera to smartphone, then punted out via WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. The first twitchers would be there within the hour.

In 1982, this is what happened... 

That evening I phoned Pete Naylor. Pete is sadly no longer with us, but back then he was one of the London area recorders and, along with Andrew Moon, pretty much a Staines Res fixture. He seemed the obvious person to call. Apart from my description of the bird, I had nothing to offer in the way of evidence. From our few meetings in the field thus far, Pete would probably have known me as a keen young birder, but also a bit of a newbie. Could he trust me enough to widely broadcast news of a Baird's Sandpiper at Staines Res? Er...no.

Unbeknown to me, Pete passed the news to someone who could check it out the next day, which was a Friday. I have a feeling that that someone was Jeff Hazell. But whoever it was, the identity was confirmed, and on Saturday the causeway was rather busy.

In fact the causeway was busy all weekend. And how did all these Baird's twitchers become aware of its presence? The grapevine. That intricate web of telephone contacts.

However, one aspect of the grapevine that I've not really mentioned yet, and which no doubt had a role in disseminating news of that Baird's Sandpiper at Staines Res, was a tiny café in Cley, Norfolk.

Coming next: Nancy's.

Monday, 29 November 2021

Cirls

Well, I actually have some classy bird stuff to blog about for a change. Today was my first back at work for a fortnight, but I only gave myself a few jobs to do and took it very easy. By lunchtime I had finished. Pleasingly I felt pretty okay, so made tentative plans for a gentle walk later on. But where to go...?

An unexpected call from Mike Morse quickly decided that for me. He and Alan had just discovered two Cirl Buntings - a male and female - in exactly the same spot which held two females last winter.

When I first arrived it was quite sunny, and among the small gang of buntings and finches diving in and out of the hedge I quickly spotted a likely candidate for female Cirl. Rather obscured, and preening, but through the scope it was instantly identifiable. A year ago I would never have been able to identify a female Cirl Bunting on face pattern alone, but now they seem a doddle. As I watched the Cirl I could see movement just below it, and deeper in the hedge. To my amazement, a stripy black and yellow face suddenly popped into view. It was the male! Well, that was easy! Getting a decent photo, not so easy...

Male a female Cirl Buntings. The best I managed of both birds together. Trust me! The arrows point to the top of their heads.

They weren't in view for long, and the whole flock was very mobile. I didn't see the female again, and it was quite a while before the male reappeared. Unfortunately it was rather distant, and the light was now rubbish...

Male Cirl Bunting in the late afternoon gloom.

There was also a major bonus in the shape of a spanking male Brambling...

Male Brambling. Very sexy.

Technically we are still in meteorological autumn, so it is early days for the bunting flock. Plenty of time for its numbers to swell beyond the current 20-odd. I spotted 2 Reed Bunts among them, but what else might appear before winter is out? Kudos to Mike and Alan, the West Bex & Cogden stalwarts, for creating such a terrific little hotspot.

Cirl Bunting is still a rare bird in Dorset, but they are definitely creeping this way.

As I walked back to the car at dusk, a falcon hammered past. It was either a Merlin or a male Peregrine, but I couldn't safely call it. I'm not sure that I like falcons much any more...

Saturday, 27 November 2021

Bird News - Part 1: The Need to Know

Once upon a time I had absolutely no interest at all in bird news. I simply went birding, saw what I saw, and was quite content with that. This morning it occurred to me that lots of us must have started this way, perfectly happy in our ignorance. I hadn't intended to begin a series of bird news posts in quite this fashion but, because a birder's 'need to know' is exactly what drives the market, I thought it might be worth exploring how and why bird news suddenly becomes valuable to an individual. I'm sure each of us will have a slightly different take on it, but this is mine...

Until I married in 1980, birds had always been a second-string interest. But Sandra really enjoyed our days out birdwatching, and by the autumn of 1981 I was taking it pretty seriously. We lived near Northolt back then and, though we visited a few spots on the western fringes of suburban London, our number one location for a birding trip was the North Norfolk coast at Cley. There was a reason for this...

I have written briefly before about boyhood holidays at my grandparents' place in Weybourne, a few miles east of Cley; about boat trips from Morston out to Blakeney Point, and the long trudge back to Cley Coastguards. I enjoyed pointing my monstrous ex-army bins at the countless birds, and could even identify a few. Most of all, I came to equate that coastline with avian abundance; I just knew it was brilliant for birds. So it seemed the obvious destination for two keen new birders.

'Twin Pines', Temple Drive, Weybourne. My grandparents' old bungalow in Norfolk. The year is 1979. A friend and I were on a motorcycling jolly in East Anglia, and I couldn't resist dropping by for this memento. My grandparents no longer lived here though; by now they had been in Budleigh Salterton for a year or two. Norfolk winters were a bit too much.

A few weeks after our marriage, Sandra and I had a day out in North Norfolk with a couple of friends. The date was 6th September, 1980. We enjoyed point-blank views of our first Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper on the Eye Pool at Cley, and at some point learned there was a Sardinian Warbler at Weybourne Camp, a place I had explored with my sister when we were kids. I had never heard of Sardinian Warbler, but we nevertheless popped over to see it. Ha! No chance. It was deep in some thicket, surrounded by loads of loafing birders waiting for it to show. Bo-o-o-ring! We didn't stay long. There was no sense of disappointment at our failure to see it. Birding was still a casual interest, and Sardinian Warbler was just a bird.

Almost exactly one year later, on 5th September 1981, we were at Cley again. By this point the birding bug has bitten. We have discovered the Walsey Hills migration watch-point, run by the Norfolk Ornithologists Association, and park just below it. On top of the little hill is a concrete bunker thing. Inside is the friendly warden, Roy Robinson...

Roy features again later in the bird news saga, but for now his role is very straightforward: Roy was the bloke who knew what was about. In 1981 Sandra and I were newbies. We had no idea that Nancy's Café was just down the road. Actually we had never heard of it. But no matter. A quick chat with Roy that day acquainted us with the fact that a Buff-breasted Sandpiper was on Cley beach. So we went to have a look. What a corker! We sat on the pebbles and watched this characterful, super-tame Nearctic wader poking about just feet away. I can see it clearly in my mind's eye. I remember too being aware of its rarity, and therefore - possibly for the first time - its value.

From this bird on, we always made an effort to find out what was around. The following weekend we were back again. On Saturday, 12th September 1981, we watched our first ever Bittern from the Walsey Hills watch-point, showing superbly in the reedbed below. Gen from Roy gave us our first Pectoral Sandpiper that day, and a Black Guillemot offshore, another tick. We failed to see the Spotted Crake that was making regular appearances in front of the viewing screen in Snipe's Marsh, so kipped in our van overnight by the roadside, and enjoyed cracking views first thing in the morning. Tick again.

Yes, seeing new birds had suddenly become important. And, crucially, so had bird news. I blame that Buff-breast.

I'll close with this vintage photo...

Roy Robinson's rusty old Ford Escort was even more of a banger than our little Bedford van.

There are...er...clues in that photo which date it to autumn 1982, by which point this old car and its noticeboard had become a very welcome sight. It guaranteed that Roy would be up there, in or near the bunker, and that we could therefore find out what was about. Because now there was - very much - a need to know.

Next: The Grapevine

Friday, 26 November 2021

Forty Years of Bird Information 1981-2021 - Introduction

This morning a Brünnich's Guillemot drifted past Holkham and round into Wells Harbour, where it beached on a sandbank and eventually died. The whole saga was broadcast live on Twitter and the bird information services, from start to finish. I say 'live', but of course the bird itself went from that happy condition to 'moribund', to 'dead' with each news update. Anyone twitching it could, at the same instant, examine both their chances of getting there in time and their morals.

Such is the speed and efficiency of bird news dissemination in 2021.

To many birders, bird news is important. Especially when it involves rare birds. So important that they are prepared to pay for it. In the forty-odd years I've been birding, a number of individuals have made the most of this fact and turned bird news into a commodity. Eleven years ago I had a stab at documenting the emergence and growth of that market, but the time is ripe for an update. So, over the course of a few posts I shall endeavour to describe the Bird Information Revolution, and chart its course from Grapevine to Smartphone.

Of course, the chances are that someone, somewhere, has already done this, and done it better than I ever could. Certainly, many will know the story better than I do. Even so, the NQS version will be unique. Its errors and inaccuracies will not be mirrored elsewhere. They will be found only here, the product of my unreliable memory, and mine alone.

I shall close with a disclaimer:

What follows will be completely...er...made up, and if any names, places, activities or motives attributed to the genuinely fictitious characters herein bear any resemblance to real life, that is utterly coincidental. And anyway, suing me for libel would be very unbirderly.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Birdfair

A couple of days ago Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust issued a press release announcing that they will no longer be running the Birdfair, held annually at Rutland Water since 1989. Key factors for this decision? Financial risk, business risk, climate crisis, and longer-term impact on the Nature Reserve. The press release sums it up in a sentence thus: 

LRWT has therefore had to conclude that continuing to run Birdfair presents our charity with unsustainable financial, ecological and reputational risks.

I am not an insider, and therefore unable to read between the lines, but I'll bet there's plenty there...

Anyway, will I miss it? Er...

The first time I attended a big show/exhibition connected with my hobby was in about 1974. I would have been 14 or 15 years old, and caught the Underground into London to attend a big angling junket at the Royal Horticultural Society Hall in Vincent Square. Being a kid, I had almost no money to spend, and remember being disappointed at the lack of trivial little freebies. I ended up coming home with some Berkeley fishing line, the British Carp Study Group's first book, and a copy of the ACA (now Fish Legal) magazine with Dick Walker's photo on the cover. Angling legend Dick Walker was at the show, and somehow I overcame my usual shyness and got him to autograph his photo. I no longer have any of those three things. Overall, that day out was okay, but didn't really live up to expectations. And my teenage expectations were pretty low. I've a feeling this experience left a mark...

Birdfair came along roughly at the time my interest in birding was beginning to wane. I would imagine its beginnings were modest, and I honestly do not recall it being a 'thing' at all initially, but by the time it was a big deal I had phased completely. Even so, I did go once. It would have been 2002, a few months before we moved to Devon. I had an appointment to meet a second-hand book dealer...at closing time on the final day. I found him easily enough, swapped my box of books for a wad of notes, and left. The other memorable aspect of that Birdfair was my one and only in-the-flesh sighting of DIM Wallace, resplendent in tam o' shanter and wellies.

2002 was peak phase, and my interest in Birdfair did not extend beyond flogging a few books. But even in the more recent, mostly keen years, Birdfair has never interested me. Yes, I've seen the photos. Happy, smiling Birdfair folk, many chatting and laughing with old buddies they haven't seen since last year (I've heard it was a great place to catch up) or in earnest conversation with someone trying to sell them something. But in the background, mooching from stand to stand, knowing hardly anybody there and looking vaguely out of place, are the everyday punters. That would have been me, the unsociable one on the left with the slim, tightly-closed wallet.

It's funny, I have read quite a few laments at Birdfair's demise. But interestingly, many have been based on the loss of a social calendar highlight as much as anything else. Unlike some birders I do not have a large group of contemporaries who all grew up birding together, and in all my on/off years in the hobby have never had a wide circle of birding mates. So in that respect I have lost absolutely nothing. I do not have the budget for up-to-the-minute optics or regular additions to my artwork collection. I buy very few books and am not interested in jaunts abroad. I guess I would have enjoyed some of the talks though, but that was never enough of a draw.

I could be very wide of the mark, but Birdfair always struck me as a glorified trade show. And I wonder what its carbon footprint was? Great that it raised money for conservation charities of course...

Probably I would miss it more if I was an artist or sold optics.

Monday, 22 November 2021

Grumpy Virus Post

Still in the clutches of some grim virus presently, which means two things.

1. I have no current birdy stuff to share.

2. I am pretty hacked off.

Thing 1 means I am not in a position to write happy posts about recent thrilling birds. Not even gulls. Thing 2 means I can easily find loads of stuff on Twitter to press my buttons. Which is a fine way to warm up for an 'opinion piece'.

There was something on there about Long-eared Owls yesterday...


This tweet has sprouted a fascinating collection of side-shoots. Among them you can find this sad graphic...


In other words, Long-eared Owl sightings in the UK have to be kept away from public access. Why? Dig around a little further and you will find someone asking: 'Is photography the new egg collecting?' Linked to that question is this...


It is all so depressing. And predictable. And therefore even more depressing. Ten years ago I was one of the moderators on the original 'Devon Bird News' blog when a Long-eared Owl decided to roost at Exminster Marshes. Stupidly it chose a really obvious and accessible spot. I have never seen Long-eared Owl in Devon or Dorset (they are like hen's teeth, and usually a jammy passage encounter) and did not travel to see the Exminster bird. But lots of people did, with the inevitable consequences. It's a long story, but in the end I had to write this post on DBN...

Dated 28 December 2011

There were sorry tales of both the LEO and SEOs being disturbed, of photographers (or should I just say people with cameras?) going on to land where they should not. Etc..etc...

I am quite conscious that nowhere above is there any suggestion that mere birders might also be at fault. It's always toggers getting the stick. After all, let's be honest, you don't need to be carrying a camera to be guilty of getting too close...

And it's true, among the big-lens boys clustered right beneath the hedge containing the 2010 Turf Lock American Robin were some without cameras. Either way, the bird did not show for Sandra and me that day. Can't think why not...

In pre-digital days there were few cameras. Birders stood and viewed birds through scopes, at considerable range sometimes. And often I'm sure they still do. It isn't a desire for closer views that has become so problematic in the last couple of decades; it is the desire for closer photos. Sorry. Images.

In the above-mentioned Twitter threads you will find some defensive input from one or two photographers along the lines of 'it's not all photographers', or 'birders/twitchers can be just as bad'. Fine. But I would be very surprised if much less than 90% of these kinds of incidents were caused by people with cameras. Nah, make that 95%. Sue me.

However, at the root of the problem is not so much the idiot behaviour, but rather how amazingly easy it now is to know all you need to know about the presence and location of disturbable birds. Which brings me to the other button that got pressed today - and again it was a tweet what done it guv - the commodification of birds news...

Almost exactly 11 years ago I wrote a series of six NQS posts about the development of the bird news services. From grapevine to pager. Interestingly, 2010 was pre-smartphone ubiquity, pre-WhatsApp and largely pre-Twitter also, so things have moved on a bit since then. I still have the posts on my hard drive, and spent a pleasant time reviewing them earlier. They were a bit more acerbic than I remembered, and I am sorely tempted to resurrect them in perhaps some revamped form. If I don't get better - and a lot less grumpy - soon, it will definitely happen.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

A Funny Old Autumn...

It has been a funny old autumn. And for many birders, very underwhelming. Birdy Twitter is largely agreed upon this. Correction. Non-Yorkshire birdy Twitter is largely agreed upon this. Speaking for myself though, I never expect that much anyway. Almost all my birding involves walking and walking, and looking, and hoping something pops up in front of me. And to be honest, this year has been better in some respects than last year. Redstart-wise, for example, definitely it has. By a factor of 20-something to one. But still, it has certainly been a very strange autumn. Here are some reasons why...

1. The rarest bird I found, and a first for the West Bex and Cogden recording area - Melodious Warbler - was in July. Which isn't really autumn at all.

2. The second-rarest bird I found - Caspian Gull - I failed to identify correctly until after it had flown off and I looked at the photos!

3. The biggest adrenaline rush - by far - was produced by a juv Peregrine (see previous post).

4. The second-biggest adrenaline rush was produced by a White-tailed Eagle from the Isle of Wight reintroduction sheme. Plastic. A plastic barn door. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

5. The bird I probably enjoyed the most because it was such a challenging little puzzler - Greenland Redpoll - was not found by me at all!

6. And to cap it all, my most satisfying find - and the rarest of the lot, a Dorset first - was Tree Cricket.

7. Which reminds me that the other two firsts for the West Bex and Cogden recording area that I was fortunate enough to find this autumn were also not birds: Chalk Hill Blue and Lesser Emperor.

Possibly there are lessons I should be drawing from that weird list of autumn highlights...

Mind you, technically I guess autumn isn't over until the end of this month, so there is yet time for some quality. Like a count of Goldcrests greater than two.

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Eleonora's Falcon?

A bit of overnight babysitting last Sunday/Monday has resulted in my third rotten cold in just over three months. It really kicked in on Friday night, and this weekend I feel lousy. I love my granddaughters, but they are festering little germ factories. Anyway, for some reason, feeling lousy has put me in the mood finally to get this post written. It relates to events which occured back in August. Not my finest hour, but worth airing I think...

During the first three weeks of August 2021, passerine migrants were mostly few and far between. A sprinkling of Wheatears, Willow Warblers and whatnot, but a Whinchat on 21st was my first of the autumn. And then the wind finally shifted into an easterly quarter, and it felt like a blockage had been removed. At Cogden on the 23rd, migrants were getting through at last. Yellow Wagtails, several Whinchats, Tree Pipits, a steady stream of hirundines. It suddenly felt very birdy.

Standing on the beach that morning, I peered out to sea and had a scan. A long, long way out I could see what looked suspiciously like a falcon, low over the water. Only a few days earlier I'd watched a Peregrine well out to sea repeatedly stooping at a passerine, which it then chased unsuccessfully all the way to shore. I assumed this bird was going to be a Peregrine too. As it got closer I made a rather pointless effort to get photos, just a burst of three. Daft really, it was still a dot. So I continued to watch it approach, and as it looked likely to hit land just to the west of my position, save another photographic attempt until then.

And then suddenly I began to wonder if it wasn't actually a Peregrine after all, and in just a few seconds went from total composure to blind panic. At closer range it looked long-tailed, with a dusky underwing and a rich, tawny-coloured body; and the unthinkable occured to me. Could this be an Eleonora's Falcon?! It reminded me so much of the light phase Eleonora's painting in the Collins Bird Guide. As it crossed the beach I had one chance at getting photos. In my flustered state I failed to get the camera to focus properly, and fluffed it. The bird headed away inland without even pausing. I checked my pics. Seven frames of blurry rubbish. What now?

Well, my instinct was to write the whole thing off as one of those moments you wish had never happened, and forget it. But if it was an Eleonora's Falcon I would have felt very bad if it had turned up somewhere else and I hadn't even given a heads-up to Mike and Alan at West Bex. So I phoned Mike and told him the story. I then posted one photo on the local WhatsApp group and asked for opinions, and a short while later was on the phone to Steve with my tale of woe. Personally I wanted to bury it, but Steve suggested I stick it on Twitter, for exactly the same reason that I had felt obliged to call Mike. I wasn't keen, but did so anyway...

The photo was taken at 07:55

There are birders who can sit among a group of strangers at a seawatch and boldly call out passing birds - even on brief, uncertain views - simply to make sure nobody misses anything. I admire them, but I am not one of them. I don't mind making mistakes in front of friends who know me, but a loud and public cock-up is not my idea of fun, so I tend not to risk it. Let me tell you, posting that tweet felt like all kinds of unpleasant exposure.

I had never seen Eleonora's Falcon, but was aware they should show a strong contrast between dark coverts and the remainder of the underwing. In the photo I could see some contrast. But strong? I didn't think so, but maybe it wasn't so obvious in young birds? I simply didn't know. The response on Twitter was interesting. For a start, BirdGuides picked it up very quickly and posted the sighting as 'possible Eleonora's Falcon'. That they hadn't immediately dismissed it on the evidence of that photo was encouraging, and I was glad Steve had persuaded me to publicise it after all. Quite a few other responses were positive too, in a cautious kind of way, especially early on. As the day progressed however, a few 'it's a Peregrine' type replies appeared, one or two including some reasons why. Like this helpful example from Jason Moss...


To be quite honest, Jason's reply in the afternoon had unwittingly squashed the one slim hope I still clung to - that it might be a juvenile, thereby explaining the minimal contrast between underwing coverts and flight feathers. It hadn't occured to me that it was much too early for juvs to be on the wing.

Another disheartening tweet was this one from StonefactionBirding...


The similarity was obvious, and by this stage I had resigned myself to the inevitable. Meanwhile, Sam Viles at BirdGuides had kindly sent all ten of my photos to a couple of raptor experts, Andrea Corso and Dick Forsman, for their opinion. Here are six of the 'better' ones...


They replied as follows...

The final nails...

So there you have it. Quite a rollercoaster. From 'have I just fluffed the only chance I'll ever get at a UK Eleonora's Falcon?' to 'oh, maybe there's actually enough in my photos to save it after all?' to 'oh no, there's actually enough in my photos to kill it stone dead, and I should have worked that out for myself'. In the end there was a spurious satisfaction to be had from knowing for sure that it was a Peregrine, but that was absolutely no consolation. I felt pretty bad. Still, it taught me a couple of lessons...

1. There is a wealth of willing expertise out there, easily accessible via social media.

2. Always know when juveniles fledge.

Would I do the same again? Well, I clearly remember how I felt during that bird's final approach to the shore and my fumbled attempt at photos, and as it powered away inland. A combination of adrenaline and immense guttedness. I really thought I might have let a very rare bird slip through my fingers. If an Eleonora's Falcon had indeed turned up somewhere later that day and I hadn't said anything to anyone I would have been kicking myself, as well as feeling guilty that I hadn't given fellow birders a heads-up. So what if the final outcome left me feeling a bit foolish? Yes, I would probably do it again. And after all, it's not every day that you get to be responsible for one of these: