Saturday, 30 January 2021

Medicine...

The rain today was steady and unrelenting. I tried to summon some enthusiasm for an afternoon walk, but there was no response. Instead I put on a long face and just wallowed in despond.

A good remedy for this kind of nonsense is a trip down Memory Lane. Unfortunately I'm old enough that it's become rather a long lane, but I mostly stuck to fairly recent history. I opened up the laptop and hunted down my old NQS photos. If you are relatively new to this blog you may not know that it had two previous incarnations. The first ran for nearly two years from mid-2008, and the second began in the summer of 2010 and came to a grinding halt in late 2013. The old NQS photos still survive on my hard drive, and I've just spent a pleasant hour browsing through them all...

When the weather is dire and the birding slow, it is all too easy to focus on the direness and slowness, and forget how temporary it actually is. My years of birding in this part of the world have been extraordinarily rewarding, and although a few weeks may seem like aeons, in reality I have rarely needed to wait too long between birdy events of note. I was quite surprised to be reminded just how many decent birds there have been. There are several group photos too, and in a way they are better than the bird pics, evoking the event, the buzz.

So, a bit of a random selection, but here's a drop of my medicine...

Amazing flock of 20 (or was it 21? Looks like 20 in the photo) Glossy Ibis alongside the Otter Estuary at Budleigh Salterton in September 2010

Devon Glossy Ibis watchers

A bit later that year there was a nationwide influx of Lapland Buntings, and we hoped we'd get a share. Eventually it happened. One super-elusive bird in about a million acres of stubble above Axe Cliff. Jammily, a few of us got it on the deck...

October 2010 - Axe Cliff Lapland Bunting

Happy Lap watchers. Crouching slightly: Larry (see below)

Maybe it seems inappropriate to pick autumn birds as a tonic for my malaise? A good point. Thankfully I was able to find something which very much fitted in with the calendar. However, it goes back a lot further than the above...


Late January/early February 1989. Norfolk, W London, the Northeast. An eclectic mix of species. My eye is drawn to the Smew count, the Ruddy Ducks and the Yellow-legged Herring Gulls (a sign of things to come!) - how the birding scene has changed! Oh, and the Cormorant thing.

The Cormorant thing drew a crowd. Crouching slightly: Larry. Tall, underwhelmed bloke in the foreground has no idea a blog will one day emerge.

So there we go. It cheered me up somewhat. Loads more where that came from!

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Dodginess Revisited

Cirl Bunting is a rare bird in Dorset. Any observer claiming one in the county had better write a convincing description. A female? Ha! Nice try, sunshine. Show me!

Yes, I can imagine that an unphotographed, single-observer female Cirl Bunting in Dorset would have quite a rough ride. However, at West Bexington there are currently two. The first was independantly found by Mike Morse, Alan Barrett and myself on January 1st, and Mike and I both got a photo. I'm sure nobody doubts the record for a moment.

In this photo is just one female Cirl Bunting, not two. Tricky.

But supposing the bird was a female Pine Bunting. And suppose it was just a single observer. And no photos. And the bird was never seen again. Even if views were astounding and the description absolutely bang-on I cannot imagine many reputations surviving something like that 100% unscathed. Or am I just a cycnic...?

In October and November 2019 I wrote five posts about the 'dodgy birder' phenomenon. For a variety of reasons I find the topic fascinating. Whether they like it or not, birders do seem to acquire a reputation. I've written before about the reputation thing, and it's interesting how much it relies on a birder's ability to find and identify scarce or rare birds, and - crucially - on other birders believing that they have genuinely seen what they say they've seen. A birder's rep does not appear to stand or fall on their ability to accurately determine the local population of breeding Robins, or stuff like that. No. It's all about finding, and about identification, and about oddities. And about trust.

So, dear reader, let me ask you a rhetorical question: Do you care what kind of reputation you have?

I expect you do. A few might not, but most of us do. I do. I would not like to think that I had a dodgy reputation.

I happen to live in a fairly well populated part of the country, with other birders not too far away. I also carry a camera, and try to photograph any decent birds I see. So when I am fortunate enough to find a bird worth sharing, frequently I am able to do just that. But if its stay is brief, chances are I'll have a record shot to corroborate my sighting anyway. I post stuff on Twitter too. In other words, in the main my birds are out there in some way, either multi-observed or photographed, or both.

That said, on occasion I have boobed. For example, last year I tweeted a Hobby photo that was actually a Peregrine, and a gull which was probably just a first-winter Yellow-legged I originally posted as a part-Casp hybrid thing. Annoyingly I knew the 'Hobby' was a Peregrine when I was watching it, but changed my mind after looking at the photos. However, the gull definitely had me fooled. My point is this: I am clearly fallible. On occasion I misidentify birds. That fallibility is bound to affect how others view me. But I have absolutely no idea what sort of birdy rep I have, because nobody ever tells you! Still, in a couple of simple ways I make efforts to minimise the possibility of too much scepticism about my records...

In 2020 my best finds included 5 Caspian Gulls, a Red-backed Shrike, a Golden Oriole and 2 Wrynecks. Of that lot only a single Casp was seen by anyone else. Thankfully I got photos of everything except the Golden O. But suppose I hadn't? Suppose I didn't carry a camera? Some of those birds were searched for by others - the shrike, the oriole and at least one Wryneck - but in vain. Would my reputation have been affected? If I wasn't me, how would I have viewed this...er...fortunate observer?

To be fair, most of my decent finds through the years have actually stuck around to be seen by others, but as 2020 shows, that's not always the way...

The undoubted high point of 2019's Dodgy Birder series was Appendix A: A Dodgy Birder Responds, in which Alan Vittery, a birder evidently labelled dodgy by the British Birds Rarities Committee, offered a case for the defense. Here was a very sharp birder, who had found many multi-observed rare birds, having his records not just doubted, but discredited. I know that I am not the only reader who found Alan's account fascinating and thought-provoking...

Well, in a sense there is a sequel. Alan has written a book. It is entitled A Date With a Bird, and is a 12-month, day-by-day summary of his birding diary highlights from 1955 to the present day. It is a beautifully bound, 280-page hardback, illustrated with many photos and one or two paintings. There is only one drawback: the book is not for sale. Although it is intended to be available as an Amazon e-book in the near future, Alan has had just 100 paper copies printed. However, he has been kind enough to send one to me. It is, as he suggests, a book for 'dipping into' rather than reading cover to cover, and I am in the process of doing just that. A small number of entries are relevant to my own birding history, in that I either saw the bird or experienced the event. But the vast majority are not. It is a superb read, and at some future time I will devote a post specifically to it. Every single one of Alan's major finds and discoveries is listed. It is jaw-dropping stuff.

There is no question that circumstances have led to Alan Vittery's reputation being irreparably damaged in the eyes of some. However, I take my hat off to his determination nonetheless to make so many of his significant records available for posterity. And simply as an anthology of amazing days in the field the book is a brilliant read.

As I say, A Date With a Bird will be the subject of a future post...

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The Elusive Purp

Several weeks ago Tom Brereton found a Purple Sandpiper at West Bay.

In all the years I've lived in this part of the country I have never seen a really local Purple Sand. By that I mean somewhere I bird regularly. It is a species notably absent from my old Axe patch list at Seaton - we couldn't even find any historical records. Small numbers winter a few miles to the east of it at Lyme Regis, and to the west at Sidmouth, but it's like there's an anti-Purp forcefield in between. There is a nice rocky area at Seaton Hole, a spot where Purple Sands would look right at home while pausing briefly on passage, but no dice, they just won't use it. At least, not when anyone's looking. They won't even fly past if there's any chance an Axe birder might see them.

Now that I'm in Bridport my local birding covers a wider expanse of coast, but again no wintering sites. Lyme is a few miles west, and the nearest birds the other way are on Portland. However, West Bay undoubtedly holds promise, with some excellent rocky groynes and the harbour wall itself. And it was on the outer harbour wall that Tom found a Purple Sandpiper at the beginning of December, only his second in many years birding here. For me it was finally a chance to see a genuinely local Purple Sand.

As soon as I could, I was on the case. No sign. And again. No sign. And again...etc...

Umpteen times I have tried and failed. It's not been a hardship because I am beginning to enjoy poking around West Bay, looking for birds. Slightly frustrating though. It's been seen at least a couple more times that I can think of, but not by me. And then a few days back we had Storm Christoph battering West Bay with a massive sea, so I guessed the Purp would do the prudent thing and head off somewhere a bit more sheltered.

I thought West Bay might be fairly quiet in this afternoon's rainy weather, so headed down for a walk. Out on the harbour wall...nothing to lose...

I stopped at the end, looked down at the waderless rocks and then had a quick scan of the sea. Nothing. My body was already half-turned to continue on, but my eyes fortunately decided to have one final check of the rocks. I so nearly missed it...

Initial view. Freshly emptied, and bedecked with little raindrop jewels...

I thought it was never going to unfold, but finally...

Purple Sandpiper in all its rotund glory.

My final photo was a blur of open wings, and when the viewfinder was clear again it was gone. I have no idea where, it just vanished.

In the The Birds of Dorset I notice there's a bizarre 1970 West Bexington record of a Purple Sand in a flooded field, but let's face it, they're a pig to get anywhere away from their winter haunts. Amazingly the species is on my London list, courtesy of a bird on the Thames at Teddington, but even that was on a lump of rock or concrete or something. I always thought the best chance of a Seaton bird would be a fly-by, but you'd want very good views. It would certainly be a bold call!

For a bird that is so regular along this coast, albeit very site-faithful, you wouldn't think it would take 18 years to finally get one on my local list. Still, one or two Axe birders have been waiting considerably longer! The elusive Purp.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Caspian Gulls in the Southwest

It's fair to say that my job doesn't require a lot of brain-time. Which means I was able to spend most of this afternoon thinking about Caspian Gulls, and still earn a few bob. Steve and I had been chatting earlier about Casps on the Axe, and their occurrence more generally in the Southwest. It's the sort of topic and discussion that I could easily see being formalised into a paper for Devon Birds, but Steve rightly pointed out that it would be out of date before it was printed. So I'll squeeze it into a blog post instead.

A serious paper in a serious journal is a wonderful thing of course, but hamstrung by all sorts of annoying constraints. For example, it needs to be accurate and reliable; it needs to be data-driven and able to withstand critical scrutiny; it needs a great, long bibliography to prove the in-depth research and studious application of the author. And once written, it needs to pass an editorial review, wait 18 months for a publication slot, another six for printing, and then finally - about three years after inception - it'll be in the reader's hands. Wonderful.

Happily, a blog is able to circumvent all this inconvenience.

Today I am privileged to be able to publish a first for NQS. A proper scientific paper, with a bit of data and stuff. Its title...

Caspian Gulls in the Southwest

The history of Caspian Gull in these islands is an interesting one. In the 1980s Caspian Gull wasn't even a bird. Then suddenly it was. In the 1990s a few diehard gull anoraks invented it for the purpose of making the average birder's life difficult. Unfortunately they made a schoolboy error - they accidentally called it a subspecies of the much commoner Yellow-legged Gull. The average birder doesn't give a monkey's about subspecies because you can't get an extra tick for one. So Caspian Gull remained an anorak's bird, and therefore very rare because nobody else could identify one. The error was rectified in 2007 when Casp was shoe-horned into a non-existent gap in the systematic list and promoted to a full species.

At this point all average birders were faced with the unwelcome necessity of seeing a Caspian Gull in order to tick it. But hardly anyone knew what they looked like. Cue massive learning curve, and utterly coincidental massive increase in sightings, bringing us to where we are now in 2021...

Current status: Caspian Gull is now a scarce but regular bird in many parts of the country. There are localised hotspots in London and the home counties where they occur in especially good numbers,  congregating wherever white, sliced loaves are abundant. However, in the granary and wholemeal-rich Southwest, Caspian Gull remains a rare bird. How rare?

Well, first let's define 'the Southwest'. That's Dorset, Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. If you google 'the Southwest of England' your results will include other places, but that's far too complicated for this author. And while we're keeping things simple: Due to not having the right books and lacking the desire to do any research whatsoever, he was unable to determine the official status of Caspian Gull in either Somerset or Cornwall. However, his gut feeling is 'mega' in Somerset, and 'very rare' in Cornwall. Though the situation in Cornwall is clouded by the fact that two or three individuals (or possibly more...or maybe less) keep hanging around, coming back each year, and in various other ways being awkward. It makes a Cornish Casp look less rare than it really is. The trouble with Cornwall is that it is located at the far end of England. Caspian Gulls get there, and then stop, realising there's nowhere else to go. Anyway, that's enough of two counties which barely register on this author's radar. Let's press on with the important ones: Dorset and Devon.

Dorset is where I currently reside, so we'll begin there. Up to and including 2019, the Dorset total was 32 records, with 26 occurring in the ten years 2010-19. Casp is officially listed as a 'rare but increasing passage migrant and winter visitor'. The period 2020-Jan 25th 2021 is a complete mystery to me, but it would be entirely reasonable to assume there's been at least two more, because I saw them. And various statistical analyses would undoubtedly suggest others occurred too. I'll bet.

Devon sources whom I trust implicitly (cheers Steve!) tell me that the county total stands at 43 individuals. In the same ten-year period of 2010-19 the count was 31, with only three earlier records. Interestingly, the combined total of 34 closely matches the situation in Dorset (32, remember?) at the same point in time. I'm sure this is significant for some reason, and likewise that said reason will be quite fascinating when someone works out what it is. As an aside, it should be noted that the current Devon database is partially unverified due to one observer having failed to send in four records as of now. This author is duly chastened and has promised to rectify.

Right then, let's get site specific. The purpose of this paper is to prove that the Axe Estuary is the best place for Caspian Gull in the Southwest. Not the best place to see one necessarily - other boring places that cling needily to their Casps might qualify for that not-worth-having title - but the best place for numbers. As of yesterday the Axe has had at least 23 different individuals. Beat that, anywhere else in the Southwest!

Conclusion: The data are unambiguously incontrovertible: The Axe Estuary rules!

So there we are. The first NQS paper. Written, edited, checked, published and out there in a single evening.


Finally, today's lunchtime thrills were provided by a stonking little Firecrest, a bird I see all too rarely, and have yet to photograph in any way that might truly be called satisfying...

Firecrest compilation - the best three of a bad lot!

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Misery Guts

Right now, this very minute, I am being seriously gripped via WhatsApp. As I sit here typing this sorry lament in cold, rainy, dismal Bridport, Steve is taking photos of a lovely 2nd-winter Caspian Gull he's just found on the Axe, and forwarding them to all of us on the local WhatsApp group. It's a cracking bird, and the plumage is unlike any I've seen before. Hopefully there will soon be a mouth-watering write-up on Steve's blog, and frankly I can't wait to see it. Still, that doesn't prevent me from feeling exceedingly gripped just now...

Winter is not my favourite season. And as I get older I like it less. Maybe if I didn't need to work in it I would feel differently, but as things stand it is a period to be endured, and the end of it to be longed for, welcomed and cheered. Yes, every winter I wish a small part of my life away.

And yet I suppose it is winter that provides me with more gull jollies than any other season. In recent winters I've been a bit spoiled in this regard, with a few lovely Caspian Gulls coming my way. There was a brief Casp encounter last month for example, plus that monster Glaucous Gull. A few birds like that make winter bearable. Occasionally there is non-gull stuff too, like the excellent West Bex Cirl Bunting story that began on January 1st. Subtle, tricky, educational, a photographic challenge. All good. So why the whingeing? Why am I so bothered about a bit of modest grippage?

I wish I knew. I'll put it down to winter blues...

While in the garden yesterday I saw a Raven, possibly two. Which means my 2021 Garden List is now on 24. Despite putting in a number of cold garden vigils, that is my measly total. Twenty-bloomin'-four. I haven't even seen or heard a Great Tit yet. Pathetic.

Prior to the Raven triumph I went for a sunny walk in the countryside...

Male Bullfinch brightens a twiggy tangle...

...and so does a Redwing.

Lapwings are rather lovely aren't they?

Nothing 'new' for the year, just a steady parade of the usual suspects. A couple of spots I fancied trying were too busy for my taste, which is another joyous facet of the current winter scene of course. Still, taking a few mediocre photos of common birds in the sunshine was nice.

There was a slim chance of snow today. In the event it snowed inland a bit, but we got none here. Despite my dislike of the cold, a short, sharp freeze-up would be welcome. Though I do feel a bit bad wishing harsh conditions on the birds, the beauty - and the muffled silence - of a snowy landscape takes some beating. In January 2010 we had just such a spell in Seaton. Everything ground to a halt. On January 6th I pulled on my wellies and set out from home in the falling snow. Arriving at the newly-created Black Hole Marsh, this was the scene...

An otter trots across the ice. It was diving into unfrozen holes and catching little mullet. Note the figure in the background on the far right. Shortly afterwards I had joined him on the tramline, which provided a perfect - if illicit - vantage point from which to survey the spectacular scenery up and down the valley.

But we're not going to get any of that kind of weather in the foreseeable future, are we? No, just rain. Temperatures will no doubt be average or above, with a steady, tedious march of Atlantic weather systems dousing us on a regular basis. Just the kind of winter that it is perfectly legal to hate with a vengeance. A pain for working in. A pain for birding in.

It's funny. If today had been a weekday rather than a Sunday, and I'd been working in Seaton, I could have responded to Steve's Caspian Gull find with an instant lunchbreak, and the tone of this post would have been completely different...

Where's that corkscrew...?

Thursday, 21 January 2021

One Historic Barbel

The day's incessant rain finally relented late this afternoon and I took a quick walk around the West Bay fields which yesterday yielded 52 Lapwings and some gulls. Still 52 Lapwings, but no gulls. However, flushing four Rock Pipits out of the soggy grass was a surprise...

Two of the four Rock Pipits this afternoon

I can only assume these were birds which normally frequent the seafront, but were forced elsewhere by the dreadful weather.

Anyway, I have nothing much else to say about today's birding, so I'm going to use the rest of this post to document a little tale of minimal interest to most birders. It involves a fish...

In this post I mentioned a boyhood angling mentor named Howard Matthews, aka Ginger. In about 1974 he kindly prepared a little document for me. It comprised a few pages of notes and hand-drawn maps, outlining some angling opportunities to be enjoyed on the River Colne near Uxbridge. I eagerly tried them out, catching the Metropolitan Line train from my local station at Preston Road to the Uxbridge terminus and walking from there. My favourite area came to be where the river flows beneath the elevated A40 dual carriageway, and just downstream of it. In those days that downstream stretch was leased by the Uxbridge Rovers Angling & Conservation Society, of which I was not a member. Still, poaching is par for the course when you're 15 years old, so that was no problem. One swim which featured in Ginger's document (and I can only assume he poached it too) lay just below a nearby weirpool. On the far bank was a large weeping willow, beneath which was a nice clear run maybe three feet deep. I occasionally caught a roach or two there...

A couple of decent roach from the Willow swim. I'm guessing this'll be 1975-ish. Forgive the dreadful photo quality.

I don't recall catching much other than roach here, though my old pal Ric reminded me that either myself or another lad who I used to fish with back then once hooked and lost a big, long fish in this very swim. Which may or may not be significant...

In the mid-'70s none of us kids ever considered the possibility that we might catch a barbel from the Colne. The idea would have seemed preposterous. Barbel were mythical fish which swam only in rivers far, far away. By the time the 1970s were done I'd caught barbel from the Hampshire Avon and the Thames, but certainly not the Colne. Neither had I ever heard of a Colne barbel being caught by anyone else. In the early '80s I stopped fishing and started birding, and that was that.

In early 1985 we experienced a big freeze-up. I had chosen 1985 to go for a London Area year list, and that period of bitterly cold weather played right into my hands, delivering all sorts of species which would have been tricky to see in a normal winter. By this time I was completely immersed in birding and quite unaware of what was happening in the angling world. I had no idea, for example, that anglers in the know were nowadays heading for the River Colne to target barbel. Barbel! In the Colne! Not long after the thaw set in, Ric got an early-morning call from one such angler, Jim Clavin. Could he drive out to witness and photograph a barbel which Jim had just caught from the Colne? Not just any old barbel either, but a monster barbel! Yes, said Ric. Yes he could...

Early 1985 - Jim Clavin with a stunning 12lb 1oz barbel from the River Colne

I think this is a super photo, and it deserves a bit of context. In his book 'Modern Specimen Hunting', Jim Gibbinson lists the biggest fish of each species reported to the angling press during the 1980/81 and 1981/82 seasons. In those days a 12lb+ barbel was extremely rare. Of just five reported in the 1980/81 season, the biggest was 12lb 12oz, and probably only two fish were involved in those five records. Just two were reported in the 81/82 season, the biggest 12lb 10oz. By the 1984/85 season things were not much changed, and a 12lb+ fish would still have been a barbel angler's dream. The fish mentioned above were all from the Hampshire Avon, or the Wensum in Norfolk. The notion that such a beast might be swimming in the Colne, just up the road there... Pah!

Well. Not only was it caught in the Colne, river of my boyhood dabblings, but more specifically the Colne above Uxbridge. In fact it was caught just downstream of the A40. And you've probably guessed already, it was caught in the Willow swim...

Gripped!

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Exploring

More exploration today. Between the A35 coast road and the sea at West Bay lies a broad strip of land which includes the winding River Brit and its modest flood plain. There are also grassy fields, hedges and a few intriguing little tangled areas. Again, apart from in West Bay itself, no one was about...

Looking down towards West Bay from high ground to the northwest

Judging by the little fireplace, this must once have been a dwelling of sorts. It lies next to a footpath, and right alongside the embankment of the A35 dual carriageway. A sorry relic of times long past.

Coming down the West Cliff footpath. A lively sea going on there...

To be honest I've never given any of this area a fair trial. A few times last spring I walked through some of it quite rapidly on my way to the sea, but apart from a couple of Whimbrel by the river I never really saw anything of note. But lying just inland of the south coast, surely it must have migrant potential?

Today though, like almost everywhere else I've tried locally, it mainly felt dead. However, at least a few birds were taking advantage of a wet field next to the river...

Between the birds and me lies the river itself, making this area relatively undisturbed. All the other riverside fields are dog-walked to oblivion. And 52 Lapwings constitute the largest flock I've seen locally, outside the incredible 'Beast from the East' movement three years ago.

This Lesser black-backed Gull was the pick of the bunch.

It was blowing a hoolie, so maybe a bit much to expect anything to show in the fields and hedges. Presumably any bird with sense would be keeping its head down. I shall try again on a calm day.

This female type Black Redstart was most definitely keeping its head down, nicely sheltered in the lea of some of West Bay's...er...classiest architectural gems.

I saw what was presumably the same Black Redstart on January 1st, at the top of the West Cliff footpath pictured above. She obviously gets about.

So no new birds for the year. The months of January and February basically serve two main purposes. One, to provide gulls. And two, to build suspense as March approaches. And that's it. Expect nothing more of them. I certainly shan't.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Onward and Upward

Today's weather forecast predicted a wet afternoon, so I bashed out some work this morning and then sat next to the estuary in my usual lunchtime spot. The Axe is currently hosting an Avocet, and I spotted it asleep among the far bank Black-tailed Godwits...

Avocet on the Axe

While mucking about with this photo I thought to myself, 'Hmm, it's almost monochrome. I wonder if it would look better in black and white?' So I duly processed it as such...

Avocet and Blackwits in B&W

...and realised it looks very similar! So, there's today's arty effort.

A good number of gulls, but apart from a single Med Gull I couldn't winkle out anything unusual. Eventually the rain started and I headed home. Which is possibly where I'll be for the next couple of days if the appalling forecast holds true.

So here we are in Lockdown 3, more than half-way through January, with a wet and windy spell imminent. So, probably more thinking time than birding time. Some of my fellow bloggers have been sharing plans and intentions, which is always food for thought. Some of those plans involve measuring, counting and recording, most of which I've been largely avoiding for a while now. Though I did keep a BWKM0 list in 2020. I plan to do so again this year, though I'm just going to call it a Garden List. Late this afternoon, during a break in the rain, I could hear a distant Song Thrush singing, which puts said list on a measly 22. The target to beat is 63. That total includes some real corkers, like Fulmar, Cuckoo, Greylag, and Nightjar for example, so naturally I thought it is going to be really hard to top...

On Saturday 9th January I spent some time freezing my bits off in the garden, skywatching. Among the handful of bits and bobs which flew over was an adult Common Gull. Considering how many there are on the coast right now, I wasn't in the slightest bit surprised. Still, I papped it for posterity...

Common Gull. The first of many garden dots in 2021, I hope.

...and thought no more of it.

Until now. Sitting here a few minutes ago I suddenly had a nagging thought.

Sure enough, a quick check of my 2020 list reveals a big gap where Common Gull ought to be. Hard to believe maybe, but I didn't knowingly see one from the garden last year. I didn't start the list until March 22nd, but even so...

Anyway, that's one way to extract a bright note from a dull, wet afternoon. Common Gull. Yay! Onward and upward!

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Time With the Buntings

One of my favourite things about birding is the infinite learning curve. Because I've seen so few of them, the West Bex Cirl Bunting really tested me. So I've wanted to spend a bit of time with the bunting flock to try and get my eye in a bit. And that's when you really notice how variable female Yellowhammers can be, for example in the strength of their face pattern. But one thing they all seem to share is an overall yellowish cast, which the Cirl doesn't exhibit at all. I say Cirl, singular, but a few days into the new year Mike and Alan found a second bird in the flock! This weekend I bit the bullet, took a short drive and a long walk, and spent some time with the buntings...

A bit distant, and not as sharp or well-exposed as I'd like, but it is the Cirl Bunting rump shot I was hoping for. Streaky olive-grey, and totally different to the rich russet backside of a Yellowhammer.

Two female Cirl Buntings with a female Yellowhammer (middle bird)

And again. Those bright ear-covert spots are very noticeable in the field.

One of the Cirl Buntings spent a short time alongside a female Yellowhammer, and there was a brief opportunity for some nice comparison shots...

To be fair, the face pattern on this Yellowhammer (left) is quite a weak one

Very different, but subtle...

I recently learned that the nearest breeding Cirls are less than 30 miles away, so although these two are a bit out of range there is reason to be hopeful. But it does make you wonder if there might be a few more birds lurking among Yellowhammers elsewhere along the coast. Certainly the subtle, tricky females would be dead easy to overlook.

In other news, I've been spending work lunchbreaks by the Axe Estuary as usual, but seen nothing bar the odd Med Gull. And on the masochism front I've managed a run of sorts every other day. I usually aim to head out just as it's getting dark, and there aren't many people on the streets at this time. That said, there are even fewer when I walk in the countryside. Today I met a single family of two adults, three kids and a dog. I simply stepped off the track and into a field to let them pass. There may be more people about than during Lockdown 1, but around here it's still noticeably quiet.

A couple of final bunting pics...

West Bex Corn Bunting. Normally this would be the highlight.

Female Cirl Bunting, completely not caring that there's no male.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Barbel Tales

Like Carp Tales, this post is one of those self-indulgent jobs aimed at providing me with a nostalgia-rich read on future wet and dismal days. I am slowly and inexorably becoming an old man now, so stuff like this is to be expected. Sorry.

The story begins in 1974. At least I think that's the year. I also think it's late summer. However, I absolutely know that I'm sitting in the passenger seat of Ginger's VW van as it carries us west through the pre-dawn darkness. I am so keyed up! Barbel are the quarry, a fish I've never even seen before, let alone caught. And we're going to the fabled River Kennet at Thatcham, then on the London Anglers Association ticket. Barbel City. From the car park you crossed to the far bank of the river by a narrow footbridge...

Every angler stops on bridges. Always. I still do. If the bridge carries a road, chances are I'll check both sides too. Can't help myself. Below that rickety little bridge over the Kennet, invisible in the dark, mysterious water, I imagined leviathans. In the event, neither of us caught a barbel. Ginger hooked and lost one, and I got bored with watching a motionless rod tip, swapped legered luncheon meat for float-fished caster and caught a plump, pound-and-a-quarter roach.

Some two decades later I revisited that stretch of the Kennet, by then known as Rainsford Farm, as a member of Thatcham AA. From the same footbridge I watched a thick swathe of streamer weed occasionally waft aside to reveal a large, pink-finned, grey-green barbel lurking beneath, untemptable. Rob was with me, a young teenager himself now. We both caught a few modest barbel that day, on sweetcorn I recall.

The Hampshire Avon's Royalty Fishery provided my first barbel, and as I write, also my last, documented here. A week on the Avon in 1976 was enough to persuade me to do it again the next year. I dread to think what horrible little Instamatic type camera is responsible for the following, but it is one of very few photos from those times...

July 1977. The state of it! I can't help noticing that the background is pitch black. Which means we were fishing after dark - not allowed. I seem to remember somehow climbing across the famous pipe bridge to sneak out undetected. The photo shows a six-pound barbel from next to the railway bridge.

Like almost everything else I do, fishing has come in fits and starts. In the 1990s I made several visits to the Kennet once more, to Padworth and Rainsford Farm, and a Reading & District stretch called Upper Benyons. At Padworth one evening I fished a shallow run upstream of a weedy section, regularly catapulting small doses of hempseed across the river in an effort to tempt the fish out of their hiding place. It worked. Lobbing out a lightly-legered lump of cheese and allowing it to trundle round in the flow did the trick, and I caught an amazing 16 barbel. I never met anyone else who used cheese for barbel, but they were sometimes suckers for it. I never got close to that kind of haul on the Kennet again. I once caught 16 in a day on the River Teme though, in 1990 I think. Those were some of the hardest scrapping barbel ever. Serious arm-ache.

A Padworth 8-pounder. Not sure whether or not this was from the Amazing Night of Sixteen, but I'm pretty sure it was from the same swim

A superb mid-'90s Upper Benyons barbel. Summery loveliness...

The Kennet and I parted ways again, for about 15 years this time. And then Rob began working over that way, a good excuse to drive up from Devon and join him on the river once in a while. I don't know how many barbel I've caught over the years, but many hundreds for sure. In all that time I never managed a 'double', a ten-pound-plus fish. In my absence, the Kennet barbel had grown fewer but bigger, and a double was now a real possibility. In June 2010 I visited Rob for a couple of days on the river. The fish were reluctant to play, but eventually I caught a barbel. Just one...

Upper Benyons on 22nd June, 2010. A double at last. 10lb 4oz.

2011 was the last time I fished the Kennet. Again with Rob. We rented a little cottage for a few days in September. The fishing was dreadfully slow. The prolific days of yore were seemingly over. I think we only caught three or four barbel between us, despite systematically searching long stretches of the river. One afternoon I spent some time slowly walking a short length which lent itself to fish-spotting. Weedy and not too deep, with some nice gravel runs between the beds of streamer. Unfortunately it appeared totally fishless. Still, watching the gently swaying sheets of greenery can be a bit hypnotic, and I ended up standing there like a lemon, day-dreaming...

And then a little puff of silt. A small, insignificant mini-cloud of disturbed river bed seeped out from beneath the weed. Surely a feeding barbel? There it was again. From upstream I cast a bait over the weed, hoping it would come to rest within sniffing distance of what must surely be a fish. Ten minutes later...

12lb 2oz of muscly perfection.

That was my biggest Kennet barbel by far, also my last. The date, 12th September, 2011. I wonder if it was actually my last Kennet barbel ever? I'll be frank. I feel no urge to return. Even ten years ago it was evident that things had changed from my younger days. More anglers, chasing fewer fish. There may be monsters, but size alone hasn't been a thing for me in a long, long time. If ever, actually. Even more so today, it's all about the experience. The surroundings, the wildlife, the company. And a few bites of course. Does size really not matter? Well, fish big enough to set the pulse racing are nice, but nowadays no more than a welcome bonus.

It was Rob's desire to fish the Royalty that drew me back to the Hampshire Avon on 3rd March, 2017. And so it was, some five and a half years since that Kennet 12-pounder, that this fish ended a very wet day in Christchurch...

7lb 7oz

That barbel was caught just a few yards from the very spot where I caught my first in 1976. A few yards, but more than 40 years. And now of course I'm wondering where, when, and actually if, I'll ever catch another...

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Lockdown 3

So here we are in Lockdown 3, and once again our birding (and fishing) plans have been somewhat knobbled. What to do...?

When the first national coronavirus lockdown began in March 2020, all the nearby coastal car parks closed. From West Bay to Abbotsbury Beach, including the National Trust car parks at Burton Bradstock and Cogden, all shut. For a good seven or eight weeks the coastline was empty. Fairly quickly I was able to work out some excellent walking routes which combined decent birdy potential with minimal risk of encountering anyone else. By far the 'riskiest' aspect of every walk was the bit that took me along local streets and through the greener parts of town, because that was where so many headed for their walking, running, cycling, dog-walking etc. Once out in the countryside it was dead easy to give the very few other people I saw a nice, wide berth.

In Lockdown 1 a so-called 'phased' re-opening of car parks began on May 13th, along with a relaxing of the 'stay local' government guidance. Cue mass migration to the coast. This time though, we have an interesting combination in play. The 'stay local' guidance is once again being strongly encouraged, and yet all the car parks remain open. Talk about mixed message.

It's been interesting to read some of the online discussions. How far can you walk? How far can you cycle? Is it okay to drive somewhere for exercise? If so, again, how far? Three miles? Five? Ten? How long can you be out? If you want to stop and look at a bird, how long can you stop for? Can you take photos? Can you even carry a camera? Is it okay to pour yourself a coffee from a flask, or does that turn your 'exercise' into a 'picnic', and therefore 'recreation', which is streng verboten. And so on.

For what it's worth, here's one take on it...

Right through this whole pandemic, a couple of basic principles have guided my behaviour. One, this virus is highly infectious. Two, it kills people. So I don't want to catch it, and I don't want to risk passing it to anyone else. Balanced against that is a need to earn a living, go shopping, exercise and get some birding in. So I try and do those things while absolutely minimising contact with others. Now that we're in a lockdown again I appreciate that we are being exhorted once more to adhere to some strict government guidelines, especially with regard to travel. So, as in Lockdown 1, my local birding will be restricted to what is within walking distance from home. I would like to drive to go birding, but don't feel I need to, so I won't. For now.

However, I do stop to look at birds. I scan fields and hedgerows. I carry a camera. I get it out and take photos. I don't worry about how far I go or how long I'm out. Personally I reckon my chances of catching or passing on Covid-19 would be infinitely higher if I spent ten minutes walking the length of my local high street on a quiet Sunday afternoon. And what's more, I am quite confident that my approach to birding isn't breaking any laws either. The government guidelines are just that. Guidelines. Not law. I wonder if the reason it seems so difficult to reach consensus on how to apply them to our varied individual circumstances is related to that fact? Generally speaking, with a law, you know when you're breaking it. With these guidelines though...well...see paragraph four.

Like most birders I would imagine, I want to exercise [read: go birding] in a way that I deem 'C-19 safe', that avoids interaction with others. But at the same time I don't want to fall foul of the law. It seems there are many, many ways to achieve those aims. My way is one. Others might judge me for it, but I hope not.

Anyway, as yet I haven't found any surprise birdy hotspots. I've explored quite a lot of local countryside, and so far it's been pretty dire. The farmland especially feels depressingly birdless. But maybe I'm not looking in the right places...

This stile is about ten minutes walk from home. Beyond it is open countryside for many miles...

Within a mile of home, this Stonechat felt like a minor triumph today.

I shall press on though, and hopefully find some spots to get excited about. If not, will I be overcome with the urge to drive somewhere? Possibly. Will I be judged? Probably. Someone, somewhere, who doesn't really know anything about me or my circumstances, will no doubt think (or say) 'What part of 'Stay at Home' do you not understand?!' So I'll answer the question now. No part. Does that help?

Mind you, I still think it's daft to leave the car parks open. When the relentlessly poor birding finally does my head in and I cave, at least make it difficult for me.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Not Quite Visiting Portland

The Isle of Portland is just down the road from where I live, and yet I never go there. I don't really know why not, and at some stage I'd like to rectify that. The famous Portland Bird Observatory has seen me even less - I've been through the gates just two or three times ever. And yet I visit the PBO website most days. I cannot explain this seeming paradox. It just is.

My first visit to Portland was in the summer of 1982. Sandra and I had been to Radipole to see a Squacco Heron, and followed it up with a quick look at the nearby place of legend. I think we knew there was a bird observatory at Portland Bill, but were too new to birding to have the confidence required to tread hallowed ground. Instead we sat on a nearby clifftop and watched our very first Puffin. Simple times.

The next visit was on 28th May, 1985. An easy one to remember...

A 'birder's photo' I'd like a chance to recreate one day. Black-eared Wheatear.

Film grain, dust on the negative, mirror-lens doughnuts... Retro!

The rest of the '80s and all the early '90s are a bit blurry, and I cannot recall any Portland trips, so I'll skip straight to October 1996...

I wasn't doing much birding by this stage, but had succumbed to the temptation to twitch a Northern Waterthrush. My memory of the day involves a flyover Lapland Bunting, several Firecrests and the downer of dippage.

In 2003 we had recently moved to East Devon and I was just beginning to take an interest in birding again. On the last day of August I drove to Portland with Rob. Our eldest son has zero interest in birding but is very tolerant, and was happy to tag along with the old man. My intention was for us to just have a pleasant walk, with me pausing from time to time to look at birds. Obviously I was aware that it was peak migration season and therefore hopeful of something interesting, but I was totally out of any bird-news loop that existed then. Not far from the observatory we spied a little crowd of birders, so wandered over. I asked the obvious question, and got a very unexpected answer...

'Olivaceous Warbler, mate.'

And there it was, creeping about in the bush opposite. Nice. Later we saw a juvenile Rosy Starling on a roof, and I also have a memory of a distant Ortolan Bunting, but don't fully trust it. But anyway, quite a haul for a chance visit. I thought to myself, 'Must come again soon...'

My friend Derek coaxed me to visit again in the spring of 2004. First, in April, when we were fortunate enough to witness a Wryneck in the hand. That fired me up a bit, and I took very little persuading when he suggested a dawn raid on May 3rd. And so it was that I spent the morning of my 45th birthday seawatching...

That's me on the left, with the astonishingly brown hair. Coincidentally, Steve Waite and his dad, Ian, chose that day for a visit too. Ian is in the foreground, with Steve between us.

So, did we see anything? Not many!!! Two - that's TWO - adult Long-tailed Skuas! I also remember a close dark-phase Pom, but it's the incredibly early Long-tails which stick in my mind. Obviously.

Strangely, since that day I am pretty sure I've not been birding on Portland at all. A summer visit with Sandra last year - for butterflies - was the closest I've got. As I say, that is something I plan to rectify. But in the meantime I shall content myself with a regular read of the daily PBO sightings page. Why, if I don't go there? Well, there is often bird news that has local relevance, so that's one reason. But there's another...

It so often makes me smile!

Though we have corresponded on the odd birdy matter, I've not knowingly met Martin Cade. But, boy, do I love his reporting style. Here's an example from yesterday...


That Meldrew-ish first sentence... Reading it again, I'm smiling right now.

And in the caption to the Redpoll photo, this: 'we used to think it's Fat Hen and have now forgotten what we've been told is in fact its correct identity'. I laughed out loud! That's exactly what I'm like with almost anything but birds, and especially plants. And I'm not that bothered by it either.

So, assuming that we are not all locked down again this spring, I plan to visit the home of my favourite bird news output. And judging by my Portland track record, there ought to be something notable...

Sunday, 3 January 2021

#MondayMotivation

According to my clever watch, the Jan 1st birding walk covered 13.6 miles. At the moment I am also trying to go for a run on alternate days, but figured a long walk was good enough for Friday. But no skiving this afternoon. So, just as it was getting dark I headed out and covered 6 rather ploddy miles in just under an hour, though 6 minutes of that comprised 1-minute walk breaks. At my current level of 'fitness' that is a long run. Right now my calves feel like they've been beaten, and I know I've overdone it.

From long experience I also know that gently plugging away, trying not to push it too hard, will eventually reap rewards. And that's the key. Consistency, and an 'easy does it' approach. Expecting too much, too soon...well...

That way disappointment lies. And burn-out maybe.

Many endeavours benefit from this kind of approach, and birding is perhaps one of them. I was free to go birding today at around 2pm. I poked my head outside, sniffed the frigid air and thought, 'Nah.' I frittered the afternoon in idleness, which is fine preparation for a 6-mile run.

Some of that idle time was spent looking at previous January birding exploits, and I'd like to recount one of them...

Not long after moving to East Devon at the very end of 2002, my interest in birding began to return. Living by the sea was a novelty, and I decided to make some effort to discover what - if anything - flew over it past Seaton. I had no idea what to expect, but a few tentative seawatching efforts in 2004 bagged some skuas and whatnot. Anyway, come the start of 2005 I decided to try and devote one hour at the start of every day to seawatching. In January that was frequently 08:00-09:00. I'll be frank, the returns were quite modest. Let me give you some examples from that month...

  • Kittiwake: 1-3 birds on ten dates, all flying W
  • Unidentified auk: 1-19 on nine dates, all W until 21st, then mainly E after that. Vast majority that could be identified were Razorbills.

So, nothing special at all there. However, something weird happened on January 21st. My memory of that day is of a strong wind from a northerly-ish quarter, so unpleasant that I had to find a new spot to watch from - my usual vantage point was a bit blown out. Again, I did 08:00-09:00. Straight away I was seeing far more birds than usual. Auks were piling W in really good numbers, and loads of Kitts too. By the time I packed up it was all over anyway, and my scribbling revealed a total of 590 auks and 216 Kittiwakes. Wow! Over 800 birds!

Best of all, at 08:40 I picked up a very small auk trailing a group of regular ones. I zoomed up, but couldn't get anything other than its tiny size. I put it down as a Little Auk. Looking back now, I seriously wonder what it actually was. Hopefully it was a Little Auk. But having lived here a while now, I know that by far the majority of Little Auk records occur in late autumn, and as far as I'm aware are not tied in with big movements of their larger cousins. Still, that's not really the point of the story...

On 21st January, 2005 I went out to do what I'd been doing almost every day of the month, and expected to see much the same as I always saw. But no, things unfolded a different way. A very unexpected way. A very nice way.

Reminding myself of that morning has been quite encouraging, and I guess I don't need to spell out why.

And while we're talking about motivation, here is some more. Three photos. Three January days. Three years. Three birds...

2018 - January 29th

2019 - January 16th

2020 - January 7th

NQS is nothing if not predictable when it comes to certain gulls, and I shall optimistically assume that the reader's eye will by now be drawn unerringly to the correct bird in each photo. So I'm going to leave those there without further comment. Except...

Always look at gulls.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Cirl Bunting Revisited

This afternoon I was dead keen to go and have another look at (or, more appropriately, look for) the female Cirl Bunting which Alan, Mike and I discovered at West Bexington yesterday. Particularly I was after some decent scope views - ideally including the rump - and some photos if possible. In the event things panned out well. Despited its tendency to play hide-and-seek among the Yellowhammers, and to sit motionless inside the hedge for ages, I got terrific scope views, including the streaky, olive-greyish rump. The range and the rather feeble light mean my photos aren't great, but here you go anyway...

Quite similar to yesterday's photo, but nicely shows the streaky crown, with no pale centre.

On the deck it shows almost no yellowish tones at all, and a surprisingly striking face pattern.

It didn't move from this spot for 15 minutes. At least it was visible though. Frequently it wasn't.

That evenly-streaked crown again. And is that a tiny sliver of rump on view between the wings...?

Eventually the gloom deepened and rain began to fall, so I'll have to try another time for those rump shots. Still, it was a very entertaining couple of hours. Educational too, because I so rarely see Cirl Buntings and have never made the effort to get to grips with the finer points of identifying females. Watching this subtle beastie among its common congeners, in a context where it is actually a very scarce bird, forces you to up your game a bit. All good.

While out and about I also had great views of a hunting male Sparrowhawk, saw 2 Canada Geese fly past and a Kestrel on the beach, and heard a short burst of Cetti's Warbler. These four species take my 2021 total to 68. The only reason I know that is because yesterday I kept a tally as I saw (or heard) each new species. I did that purely out of curiosity, not because I intend to keep a year-list. And yet here I am today, keeping count still...

Lots of birders do keep a year-list, and many of them will actively look to add to it, perhaps aiming to beat the number they got last year, or in some previous year of plenty. I've done this myself, several times. However, while some birders clearly find listing a source of personal encouragement and motivation, that's not necessarily been the case for me.

In recent years I have learned something about myself. When it comes to birding, sometimes I get a little bee in my bonnet, get slightly obsessed with some random, niche aspect of this hobby, and just have to focus on it until I no longer want to. Listing interferes with stuff like that. For example, I can think of many times when I've found myself birding uninspiring habitat in search of some species I 'need' for the list, and resenting every minute of it. The only reason I'm there is because the list demands it, not because I want to be. For similar reasons, rigidly defined patch boundaries don't work for me either. Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising year-listing or patching. I know that many birders absolutely thrive on chasing year-lists or concentrating on a much-loved patch. If that's you, great.

In the past I've erroneously believed that ought to be me too. And ignoring the warning signs that were telling me otherwise has contributed to some serious phasing.

It's taken me many years - too many - to shape a kind of birding that fits comfortably with how I'm wired. If you are relatively new to it all, be warned! Seriously though, just keep checking that you're enjoying it still. If in doubt, re-evaluate and maybe change tack.

So, in the shiny new year that is 2021 I shall keep counting until I don't want to any more. If that makes sense...?