Saturday, 27 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 3: Mistrust

This post has taken an age to write, and before it gets going I just want briefly to say why. In a UK birding context alone, A Date With a Bird documents many sightings which will provoke a raised eyebrow in even the most credulous reader. It would be all too easy to focus solely upon those records and thereby add fuel to the 'dodgy birder' fire, but I am at pains to avoid any such possibility. In sending me a copy of his book and agreeing to my request to write about it, Alan Vittery invested in me a measure of trust, and I have no intention of betraying it by stitching him up. At the same time, I wish to be candid. I am not a credulous reader, and Alan's book has worked my eyebrows pretty hard. In part 2 I listed a few examples of birdy joy resulting from a thrilling find or exciting passage movements. Believe me, they barely scratch the surface! However, I hope I am open-minded enough to see the bigger picture that this fascinating book paints...

_____________________________________________

 

So, then. Mistrust...

'I have been informed via a local recorder that the British Birds Rarities Committee refuses to consider my 2003 Fea's Petrel record for Brora, or any other single-observer record from me unsupported by a photograph.'

Thus begins an open letter to the BBRC from Alan Vittery, as published in the article 'A Single Mind' in the January 2005 edition of Birdwatch magazine. The bird in question features also on p127 of A Date With a Bird, in the entry for 29th August:

'In 2003, after 2 Cory's Shearwaters had passed, a Fea's Petrel flew slowly north-east, very close in, with that exaggeratedly looping flight action which seems to take it almost back to its point of departure. I later discovered the same bird had been seen off Fife Ness and then reached North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys, yet the BBRC, cutting off their nose to spite my face, refused to acknowledge it had also been seen from Brora!'

The Birdwatch article adds further details. For example, that rather than driving north to the next headland for another look at this 'close-in gem' as he puts it, Alan had gone home to telephone observers in Caithness and on the north coast of Sutherland to alert them to its approach, and that the first he had known of the bird's appearance at other locations was from the recorder himself when Alan later rang him about it.

This one bird neatly illustrates an unhappy thread which runs right through Alan Vittery's book: the evident mistrust of his sightings...

Having taken up birdwatching in 1951 at the age of seven, it became the raison d'etre of his life, dictating his choice of careers and retirement addresses. Imagine what a foundation of foreign living and birding in the 1960s and '70s would do, not just for your familiarity with species very rare in Britain, but also for your approach to the hobby in your home country. Is it any wonder that Alan chose to plough his own furrow, shunning crowds and the burgeoning twitcher ethos? I guess it would be safe to say that AV has not been a part of the contemporary birding 'scene' since his youth.

So, having chalked up 70 years of largely pioneering-type birding, and by his own estimates 100,000+ hours in the field, is it surprising that the man has likewise tallied a huge number of rarities? Obviously not. But his solo approach has undoubtedly contributed to the plague of mistrust. In the book's introduction, Alan writes:

'Seemingly suspected by my doubters of 'seeing too much', I am a victim of my own success.'

Earlier, in the book's preface, we get some idea of the motivation behind its publication:

'As one enters the twilight of life, thoughts turn to the practical.'

And then, after admitting that the nomadic nature of his life perhaps reduces the value of his records in terms of monitoring a single location over many years, he writes...

'Nevertheless, I have made major discoveries in several little-known countries and even some British 'firsts' will die with me unless I publish them now. Some of these are almost certainly indicators of new trends in our rapidly changing climate, further emphasised by several extraordinary (but new norm?) sightings in southern Portugal in the last four years.'

So. Here we have a serious birdwatcher who has dedicated a very large portion of his life to the hobby, and yet is forced to operate 'outside the system' because he is not trusted. I find this immensely sad. Alan Vittery is clearly a skilled, knowledgeable, experienced, very sharp observer. Reading between the lines, to me his integrity is obvious. This is not a man who makes stuff up or embellishes a description with details that...er...would have been nice to see.

I have written previously of meeting Alan on Tresco in 1987, and how that encounter led to my seeing a Spotted Sandpiper which he had found on the Great Pool. And how Mike Rogers asked me to submit a description of the bird because Alan Vittery was dodgy. In the cold light of 2021 I have to ask myself what exactly Mike meant. Did he mean that AV had misidentified a Common Sand? No. Because it seems Mike trusted my skills sufficiently to believe that the bird was indeed a Spotted Sand. Rather I suspect Mike meant that any description from AV - no matter how diagnostically complete - would get nowhere without verification from another observer. Just think about the implications of that...

I have tried hard to put myself in Alan Vittery's shoes. He is all too aware of how he is regarded by the birding 'establishment', but to some extent downplays the consequent effect upon himself, instead lamenting how the official record is now somewhat impoverished by the absence of his records. However, I do not think many readers will be fooled by this seemingly unemotional, matter-of-fact view...

Ask yourself: how would you feel to come one day to the horrible realisation that people didn't trust your sightings? How would you feel to have what is surely a watertight description rejected, with no explanation as to why? How would you feel to be told that basically your records won't even be considered without photographic evidence or the corroboration of another observer? Personally - and this is an understatement - I would find it hurtful. Anyone would. And no amount of shoulder-shrugging matter-of-factness will persuade me otherwise. Which is why, as I read A Date With a Bird, I was not surprised to see the hurt showing on occasion. How could it not? I'm not going to make a big deal of it, because the main thrust of the book is essentially a celebration of a lifetime's birdwatching adventures, and I don't wish to detract from that too much. But Alan Vittery's book has had a profound effect on how I view so-called dodgy birders going forward - a subject I want to address in a future post.

In the meantime, allow me to test your eyebrows...

During Alan's 19 years in Sutherland, seawatching (his 'addiction'!) features prominently, and many epic seawatches are documented in the pages of this book. Rarity-wise, among the highlights are Giant Petrel (twice), Crested Auklet (three times), a Cassin's Auklet, and a putative Short-tailed Shearwater. Incidentally, both auklet spp are illustrated by notes and sketches. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Alan has not invented these birds, and is convinced of their veracity. And as far as the integrity of this book is concerned, to me that is all that matters.

One type of dodginess which can be a trap for the unwary is the inability to let a bird go. You know what I mean. You didn't get enough on it for a solid identification, but just force it into a box regardless. Is that Alan Vittery? Have decades of solo birding sabotaged his self-appraisal system? No, and no again. I don't think so. In one account he relates how he lets a probable Bonelli's Warbler go because he cannot clinch it, and in another he withdraws a claimed Lanceolated Warbler because he realises he's made a mistake.

As I said at the beginning, this post has taken a long time to write. There have been a couple of drafts, and much tweaking. A better, more succinct writer would skillfully have persuaded you to read A Date With a Bird, but I hope you do anyway because the book deserves a wide and thoughtful audience. I will leave you with a final quote. Not from the book, but from one of its readers, a bloke called Ian Wallace. Ian Wallace (DIMW to many) is a birder whose enthusiastic writing has inspired me through the years. Interestingly, he too has been judged a dodgy birder....

This is his take on A Date With a Bird:

”A Date with a Bird” came yesterday and I have not been able to put it down. So total thanks and frequent cheers . . . it really is a splendid romp with Vittery spirit and effort, hence avian harvest fully distilled and intoxicating. And as a personal statement about birding ethos like no other that I can recall, except some of my own logs and note files - to which it is sending me to check like experiences and attitudes . . . constantly!

Do let me know how other readers react to its freedom of perceptions, so refreshing compared to e.g. the Jan 21 issue of ‘British Birds’ with ever more bureaucratic nitpick but little joy or interpretation.

In part 4: Lessons


Postscript: There have been technical problems with the Kindle version of A Date With a Bird. In connection with that issue, on Wednesday 24th February Alan wrote:

My Printer, Nick, is still trying to sort the problem. Amazon's technical support (or lack of it) not helping.. He assures me that the people who were unable to access the book will either get their money back, or a free copy from him.

Friday, 26 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 2: Joy

Alan Vittery has distilled seven decades of notes and records into a remarkable book. There are one or more highlights for every single date on the calendar, including February 29th, and not in a 'went there, saw that' kind of way either. Peppered throughout are interesting little nuggets of this and that: observations, insights and opinions based on a unique life experience. Between 1964 and 1978 Alan's Foreign Office postings included Bulgaria, various African countries, Turkey and Pakistan. Then, after several years living in Cley, with Blakeney Point as his local patch, he was medically retired and became a full-time birder. If our own circumstances presented us with such an opportunity, where would we choose to live, I wonder? Brora, Sutherland (1990-2009)? Santa Maria, Azores (2009-2016)? Algarve, Portugal (2016 - present)? The results of such pioneering choices are a major highlight of the book.

I like that the publisher's name is Quirks & Foibles.

As you can imagine, 30 years of full-time birding in largely remote, unexploited locations with amazing potential - plus the previous part-time 40 - have produced countless birdy thrills. And reading about them is one of the pleasures of this book. Alan is a sober writer and could never be accused of sensationalising the narrative, but his account of discovering the first breeding Killdeers in the Western Palearctic does include a double exclamation mark! The thrill and excitement is palpable, as it is on many, many other occasions. Here is a birder who delights in finding the unexpected rarity, or witnessing spectacular passage, and that delight shines through. A few examples from the UK which most readers will be able to relate to...

Alan spent many holidays on Scilly. On Tresco in 1980 he found Britain's third Sardinian Warbler, and in 1989 a Common Nighthawk, both gratefully twitched by Scilly regulars. One Scilly date which resonated with me personally was September 14th 1986. On Saturday 13th I had endured a hideous Scillonian crossing with Sandra and our two young sons, en route to our first autumn trip to the islands. A blasting, south-easterly hoolie and non-stop rain, which didn't relent until the next day. My memory tells me the sun appeared. Anyway, we stuffed Baz (14 months) into a pushchair and headed out, with Rob (three and three-quarters) in tow. Of necessity we travelled slowly and were largely restricted to the lanes, but nevertheless stopped and scanned frequently. Every single hedge had something in it. There were Redstarts, Whinchats, flycatchers, assorted warblers everywhere - St Mary's was leaping with migrants. Although I no longer have the figures, it was a pretty amazing fall. On Tresco, Alan Vittery was busy:

'...over 100 Spotted and 20 Pied Flycatchers, 10 Tree Pipits, 8 Yellow Wagtails, 7 Whitethroats, 5 Sedge and 3 Garden Warblers, plus numerous Redstarts, Whinchats and Willow Warblers. Wryneck, Tawny Pipit, Common Crossbill and 3 Ortolan Buntings were the only scarcer species found.'

In later years I often wondered what we might have turned up that day had we been able to bird St Mary's a lot more knowledgeably and intensively. Now I have some idea!

Alan is well known for finding a White's Thrush (1991) and Daurian Starling (1998) in Sutherland - both birds twitched by others. And both obvious moments of joy!

One birding activity more capable than most of providing the odd massive surprise is seawatching. Alan calls it 'my addiction', a fact which quickly becomes obvious. There are many examples of such surprises in the book, and here are two from the Sutherland years...

Weather conditions on 8th September 2007 prompted a speculative visit to Strathy Point on the north coast of Sutherland. In the preceding 17 years in Scotland, Alan's biggest day count of Great Shearwaters was five. That day he had 1410 fly past! However, that was nothing compared to Martin Scott's total of 7000 from the Butt of Lewis, the northernmost tip of the Hebrides! On 9th August 1994, in calm, cloudy conditions, a completely unanticipated passage of Long-tailed Skuas past Brora included flocks of 10, 12, 16 and 26! To put this in perspective, the day's total of 69 was greater than Alan's lifetime aggregate for the species!

The examples thus far have been deliberately chosen because most are verifiable. The rarities in particular were all seen by others. However, they are in the minority, and therein lies the crux of the book. A Date With a Bird is far more than a happy romp through a lifetime's birding. There is a depth to it, a sadness even, which on occasion makes for poignant reading. And that will be the focus of the next installment...

In Part 3: Mistrust

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Late Winter Gulls

A quick birdy update...

Finally, a break in the relentless wet and/or cold weather means I have a massive backlog of work that needs attention. This is frustrating, because lots of gulls have been passing through the Axe Estuary in the strong southerlies, and they all need checking. Lunch breaks have therefore been brief, highly focused, and carefully spread through the working day. Checking the several hundred migrant Common Gulls for Ring-billed feels like a necessity, despite the very slim chance of success. Herring Gull numbers are well up too, and they all need sifting. Some of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls are now looking comfortably dark enough for intermedius, and Med Gulls always demand at least a few moments of appreciation, and maybe a photo...

First-winter Med Gull looking very cool

Adult Med Gull approaching summery perfection

Second-winter Med Gull.

Lesser Black-backs are coming through in numbers now, though a steady flow rather than a flood. And there is quite a variety in mantle shade...

Both Lesser Black-backed Gulls of course, but the left hand bird I would happily label intermedius, with a graellsii on the right.

The only oddity I've seen during the week was this bird yesterday...

Initial views

Its bright yellow legs and upperparts shade (a touch darker than Common Gull) suggests Yellow-legged Gull, but I was slightly concerned about its modest proportions. Age-wise it is sub-adult, and in flight showed extensive dark markings in the primary coverts, so I would go for third-winter (4cy). A few more photos...

Just discernible is a p10 mirror - though it is very small - which I think backs up the age diagnosis. A nicely saturated yellow bill, with obvious blackish sub-terminal markings, also fits a third-winter bird.

Nice white tips to p4 and p5, some dark markings in the tertials. Yep, a third-winter, I'm pretty sure.

I have to say, despite the less-than-gargantuan stature, its beautifully clean white head, hefty bill and facial expression do look great for Yellow-legged Gull. I assume it is therefore a female. Look at those legs. Proper yellow!

The Axe Estuary is quite short, but some areas are nonetheless better for gulls than others. And on its day, one of the better spots for large gulls is right in front of what we have always called the 'tram sheds'. There is a raised gravelly strip in the mud here, and for some reason large gulls like to stand on it, or even go to sleep on it. A year ago Steve found the American Herring Gull on it, and I have old photos of Caspian and Iceland Gulls revelling in its stony welcome. This morning there were lots of big gulls loitering in the area, though all standard fare this time. I took a phone snap...

Big gulls crammed on to the gravelly strip. That long, low building is technically called the tram depot, but to me 'tram depot' doesn't sound quite as birdery as 'tram sheds'!

Saturday, 20 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 1: Introducing Alan Vittery

Some years ago I was researching the rare bird adjudication process for this blog when I came across references to Alan Vittery in the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee) entry on Wikipedia. I quote:

One of the observers who Wallace claimed was blacklisted, Alan Vittery, also contributed to the debate, stating that he had been informed by the BBRC that they would not consider any single-observer record he submitted, unless supported by a photograph.

This refers to a Birdwatch magazine article written by Ian Wallace, entitled 'Questions that won't go away' (2005 - Birdwatch 153:19-20). There are references also to three Birdwatch articles by Alan Vittery: 'String theory' (1996 - Birdwatch 47:13), 'A Single Mind' (2005 - Birdwatch 151:22-23) and 'Give lone birders a chance' (2005 - Birdwatch 157:22-23).

It seems clear that the BBRC had judged Alan Vittery a dodgy birder.

Back in October and November 2019 I wrote a series of NQS posts about the dodgy birder phenomenon, in which I mentioned meeting Alan many years ago. I want to begin by revisiting our first encounter...

It is December 1981. Sandra and I have been married just over a year and are in North Norfolk, enjoying our first birding holiday together. We are little more than beginners, so Norfolk's winter regulars are giving us superb value. Exciting times. We decide to try Kelling Quags, and our OS map suggests there is an access track off the coast road through Kelling village.

In those days I drove a 1972 Bedford van, which was based on the Vauxhall HA Viva. It was an 'estate conversion' with rear side-windows and a fold-down back seat - spartan, but perfect for two young adults and a black labrador. And I was quite happy to take that rugged little thing down all sorts of bumpy lanes. Which is how the Kelling Quags access track started out. However, it soon morphed from a bumpy lane into a rutted bog and we became stuck fast. Sandra didn't drive so was lumbered with pushing duties, but her then seven-stone frame didn't get us anywhere! We badly needed help, but no one was about. In the distance we saw a birder walking west along the shingle ridge towards Salthouse. Slowly he faded into the distance, and we laboured on...

Nothing worked. I tried to build a ramp out of random bits of wood and some old carpet we found somewhere, but the rear wheels just buried themselves deeper and deeper into the mud. Eventually we were up to the axles and I was a bit desperate. The short afternoon was heading rapidly towards dusk, we were hot and sweaty, covered in mud and now very tired. The birder we had seen earlier - an hour ago? two? - was retracing his steps now, heading homewards we guessed. How surprised we were to see him again a while later, striding up the track towards us.

'Can I help?' he asked. Or so my memory imagines...

I was 22 years old, this chap was in his late 30s. He had lived abroad, he told us, and was familiar with this kind of vehicular predicament. However, even the extra weight and muscle he brought to bear could not shift us. Not to worry though, he had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. His first suggestion was to empty the van of everything possible. Out came my heavy toolbox, the spare wheel, the jack, the ton of other stuff I used to carry 'just in case'. Obvious really, but I hadn't thought of it. His other suggestion was to deflate the rear tyres a bit. I cannot recall whether or not we needed to do that in the end, but it's immaterial - we were quickly out of those hellish ruts and back on firm ground. Our rescuer bade us farewell and headed off, but not before introducing himself. His name was Alan Vittery.

So my first encounter was with Alan Vittery the man, the person, not Alan Vittery the birder. His thoughtful act of kindness made a lasting impression.

In September 1987, Sandra and I met him again, on Tresco. I don't know whether he recognised us initially, but he did remember that December afternoon in North Norfolk six years earlier. He told us about a Spotted Sandpiper he'd found on the Great Pool, and we managed to see it later that day. Back on St Mary's, Mike Rogers asked me to submit a description and inferred that Alan Vittery was not a trusted observer. I really didn't know the half of it...

That 'dodgy birder' label makes its presence felt many times in Alan's new book A Date With a Bird: A birdwatcher's life. Alan is in his late 70s now, and the book documents a lifetime of birding - seven decades of it anyway. I first mentioned A Date With a Bird in this post a few weeks ago, and that a Kindle e-book edition was planned. Well, that has now happened - it was published on Amazon three days ago. 

Alan sent me a hardback copy, and I intended to write a post about it. However, having read it in dribs and drabs I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again, this time with a notebook to hand. This book has struck an unexpected chord with me, and I want to give it a few posts, not just one. Hopefully it will become clear why.

In the meantime I would like to publicise its availabilty. Firstly through Amazon, and this link will hopefully take you to the relevant Kindle e-book page. [EDIT: Link currently broken, presumably due to technical problems with the Kindle version. I'll aim to restore it when the issues are fixed]

In addition, Alan has told me that 50 original hardback copies are for sale on a first-come, first-served basis, directly from him. I can highly recommend the book in terms of 'build quality' as well as content. The price is £25 including post and packing, with all sale proceeds going to OSME (Ornithological Society of the Middle East). You will need Alan's email address in order to contact him, which I can provide via a direct message on Twitter (this link should take you there) or by text/email if you already have my contact details.

Alan has mentioned that a paperback edition might be in the offing at some stage, but that's all I know right now.


If the Amazon link takes you somewhere that looks like this, my work is done.

 

Finally, I shall leave you with a taster...

The book is arranged in month-by-month order from March, with an entry for every date on the calendar. Here is August 13th...

August 13th 1996. From a moving vehicle in Dornoch, Sutherland, Alan identifies a first-summer Laughing Gull on the roof of a mobile home.

Exactly ten years later, on August 13th 2006, Alan spots a Laughing Gull flying towards Brora from the south-west. It lands in the river-mouth and has a wash.

Classic dodginess right? Poor bloke hasn't even got the sense to choose a different date or species! However, both birds hung around until October, to be enjoyed by many. And both were last seen on exactly the same date! 

In part 2: Joy!

Thursday, 18 February 2021

While Waiting for Wheatears

Driving between jobs today I spied a field of Mute Swans, so pulled over to quickly check them for stray Whoopers or Bewick's. Needless to say, no chance. However...

Cattle Egret

It's amazing how rapidly this species has become part of the scenery. Not many years ago (ten? fifteen?) my discovery would have sparked a local twitch. But now? Well, I did reach into the car and dig out the camera this time, but one day...

Anyway, on to the main point of this post...

Spring is on the horizon and birders' thoughts turn to migrants. Like anyone else, my little heart swells at the prospect of plucky Wheatears flitting across the Channel very soon, but in the meantime there are other migrants to enjoy right now. No waiting. Now. Sounds good, right? Interested?

Yesterday my working day was cut short by a thick band of rain sweeping in from the west. Its arrival coincided with lunchtime, so while waiting for it to clear I sat in the car and watched the birdy comings and goings on the Axe Estuary. In just over an hour the Lesser Black-backed Gull count went from 35 to 90. Back in the days of regular note-taking I would write down any LBBG count which was bigger than nine, because the Axe norm is single figures. Today for example, no more than five whenever I checked. Yesterday's count was a big one. My Axe record is 162, on 23rd March 2006, and I've had just two other 100+ counts: 100 on 3rd March 2009 and 120+ on 23rd February 2010. Notice how they were all late winter/early spring? That's because Lesser Black-backed Gulls are migrants. Migrants!

So where did all those birds come from yesterday? In December last year I came across a colour-ringed LBBG on the Axe Estuary. It was ringed as a nestling on the North Sea coast of Germany on 3rd July 2014. Look where it's been since...

Lesser Black-backed Gull Yellow HXJ60

Yep, they might breed up here, but they winter on the Iberian coast, or even as far south as West Africa. And given the right conditions we can get a nice little arrival from mid-to-late February onwards. The magic of birdy social media revealed that my own LBBG thrills yesterday were not an isolated incident. For example, lots through Abbotsbury and a big pulse through London during the last couple of days. Exciting eh?

But Lesser Black-backs have even more to offer. Because they come in different flavours you see. Those that breed on our shores are Larus fuscus graellsii, and most of our migrants are of this race, but we also get the continental version which breeds up as far as W Norway: Larus fuscus intermedius. Intermedius birds are much darker than graellsii, closer to the shade of Great Black-backed Gulls. So, not only do you get the pleasure of watching migration in action, but also the happy delight associated with assessing shades of dark grey! Yesterday's birds all looked like graellsii to me, though some were definitely on the darker end of the spectrum. A few pics...

LBBGs beginning to gather. On the bird with open wings notice the obvious contrast between the black primaries and the rest of the upperparts.

A new arrival

From a distance I initially wondered whether the bird on the left was going to be a Yellow-legged Gull. It isn't. Great Black-backed Gull in the background - note the much darker plumage.

Nice shade comparison: GBBG on the left, graellsii LBBG on the right.

I had a little trawl through the NQS archive for some shots of intermedius birds. Here is a selection. They are quite old and the quality not great, but the much darker plumage is nicely obvious...

Graellsii on the left, intermedius on the right.

Intermedius again, possibly the same bird as above.

Definitely an intermedius on the left. Not sure about the other one...

Okay, I've done enough work. You decide.

Look at this stunner! A right hefty intermedius.

Intermedius in the sun.

I'd forgotten all about this next photo. It was taken on 5th March 2012 at Trew's Weir on the River Exe in Exeter. There were a few of these birds present and initially I had to do a double-take because they looked superficially like Yellow-legged Gulls. But they weren't. Rather they were graellsii Lesser Black-backs.

Graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull in Exeter, 5th March 2012

So there you go. While waiting for Wheatears, what can we do?

Look at gulls.

Always.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Good Old BirdForum

It's not often I visit BirdForum these days. A bit sad really, because 15 years ago I was on there several times a week and contributed regularly. But things change. I discovered blogs and blogging, and became a bit fed up with the car-crash TV of some of the 'Rare Bird Information' threads. But I'll be honest, it was the prospect of exactly that which tempted me back just recently. The Exmouth Northern Mockingbird had just made the BBC News for all the wrong reasons and I was childishly curious to see what the BF regulars had to say...

The headline, and a relevant extract

The Rare Bird Information threads are almost always about the latest rarities, and sometimes contain helpful links, photos and, yes, information. But occasionally they descend into another realm entirely, and the Northern Mockingbird thread is a fine example.

In normal circumstances this bird would have been a massive February treat for hundreds of twitchers. I say twitchers, but I'll bet quite a few birders who rarely bother with twitching would have been tempted also. But it was discovered in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, theoretically putting it out of bounds for all but the most local of birders. A number of posts on the BF thread debate the pros and cons of the government's 'stay local' guidelines, and a few rationalise how tiny are the C-19 infection/transmission risks of a solo car journey and socially-distanced peer into someone's garden.

It seems pretty clear that a number of twitchers have travelled a long way to see this bird already, so the question of whether some will succumb to temptation is moot. Rather, the question I would pose is this: what have they left in their wake?

Information in the BF thread suggests that access to view the bird is down a narrow alley between houses or gardens, and that you need to stand on a wall for best results. Obviously I have no idea how accurate that is, but nonetheless it seem likely that any twitcher is going to be rather 'on view' to the general public. Again, the BF thread suggests that some 15 twitchers were present on Saturday morning, and the above excerpt from the BBC report infers that one or more local residents got the hump and called the police.

Whatever one's view of Covid-19, lockdown and all the rest of it, one thing is almost certain: somewhere on that Exmouth housing estate will be individuals who take a very dim view of anyone who travels from afar to see this bird. They will think it an irresponsible liberty, reckless, even dangerous. They might not mind local Exmouth birders walking or cycling round for a look, but what about when they learn that matey has driven down from Norfolk or Yorkshire? And where are all this bloomin' lot from...??

Anyway, it seems already to have reached a point where tolerance has given way to resentment. And action.

I do get twitching. I've been there. The thrill of a new bird - or just the prospect of one - can be almost a physical thing. But there is, and always has been, a small minority who seem not to give a stuff about the consequences of their actions, just as long as the bird is nicely tucked away on their list, thank you. And it rather sounds like they've been at it again...

One day I suppose the lockdown will be lifted and travel restrictions eased. And if the bird is still present, Northern Mockingbird twitchers will descend upon Exmouth. I would like to think they'll get a warm, friendly reception. Their current restraint deserves one, but I'm not optimistic.

Meanwhile, a few local things from the last few days...

Not sure I've ever photographed a Treecreeper before

A couple of lunchtime Avocets on the Axe Estuary yesterday. New arrivals.

Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush comparison. Horse's rump adds to the confusion potential.

Though Hares are regular at East Bexington, I think this might be the first one I've seen at West Bex.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Refrigerated Birds

With daytime temperatures barely above zero, and an evil wind-chill, work is off the table right now. So this afternoon I wrapped up well and went for a long walk around West Bexington. It was brilliant. Freezing cold, but brilliant. At one point there was no-one at all visible on the beach east of me, and the nearest people the other way were at Burton Bradstock. Umpteen miles of deserted shingle. Heaven. Although we've had no proper snow locally, there was evidence of at least some cold-weather movement, with Lapwings, Golden Plovers and Snipe dotted here and there. Totals were 38 Lapwings, 81 Golden Plovers (biggest flock 55) and 14 Snipe. The Snipe kept popping out of random wet bits, typical of birds just looking for somewhere soft enough to probe. A nice first-for-the-year was Mistle Thrush, with two on a sloping meadow. A few snaps...

Golden Plover catching a bit of sunshine.

Redwing, Mistle Thrush and a few Linnets.

The other Mistle Thrush.

I left the beach till last, and walked it with the wind on my back. The icy blast appears to have scoured every bird from the sea, which was empty. However, once I got level with the Mere it was obvious where they'd all gone. A good 500+ large gulls, some on ice, some on the open water. Bliss! I only had bins, so in order to do them properly, yet not spook them, I crept up the shingle slope from the seaward side, crawling the last bit and lying prone on the top. They edged away a bit, but didn't flush. It was worth the effort...

The fifth bird from the left... Only a slightly darker shade of grey than the Herring Gulls, but that's sufficient to make it stand out. Yellow-legged Gull.

 

I shifted to a better position and took some more photos...

Despite the rather immature bill, the almost entirely grey coverts and hint of primary mirror age it as a 3rd-winter rather than 2nd-winter.

A Yellow-legged amongst the Herrings. It was 16:30 and cloudy, perfect for assessing the relative greyness of greys in a sea of grey. Not so perfect for low ISOs and fast shutter speeds.


I am rather chuffed to see another Yellow-legged Gull so soon after the rather lovely West Bay adult. And it did the decent thing and stuck around for a few photos. I spent too long with the gulls really. By the time I got home it was pretty dark.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Writer's Block and Modest Birds

Blog-wise I have rarely been so indecisive as these last few days. I have started - and stopped - two new posts, both of which struck me as a too directionless. It's dead easy to write about good birds, and those kind of posts usually take shape rapidly. But we are not in a time of plenty just now, and I have only modest birds to share, so instead I've been working on what are essentially opinion pieces. Holding opinions is easy, but doing something positive and constructive with them, and expressing them articulately, is not.

One of the posts was inspired by the Exmouth Northern Mockingbird. It's too easy and predictable to write finger-pointy stuff about twitchers breaking lockdown rules for it, so I wanted to avoid all that. But it did make me think about what motivates us to twitch a bird. Personally I always enjoyed sharing the experience in some way, and if I was still at it today I am sure there would be lots of triumphal tweeting, and my clutch of so-so photos would join a host of identical ones online. So what would have motivated me to twitch something like this Mockingbird, where all the post-event celebrations would have to be rather secretive and private? The stigma associated with twitching this bird from anywhere other than just down the road in Exmouth is going to be stubbornly long-lived I suspect.

Anyway, perhaps you can see why all this got me thinking about what it is that motivates a birder to go a-twitching, and sadly I came to the conclusion that sometimes it must be little more than the tick alone. A number on a list. One more digit.

Which in turn got me thinking about numbers, and the power they can wield. At which point I realised I was biting off more than a single post's worth of chewing...

The other post was inspired by a fish that is [probably] extinct in Britain. I knew where I wanted to go with it, but kept falling over along the way. So, back burner...

Right then. Modest birds...

Obliging West Bay Rock Pipit from a few days back.

Unless I'm working in Seaton, West Bay has been my birding venue of choice lately. The Yellow-legged Gull which featured in the last post is easily the smartest bird I've seen there, but there have been a few other bits and bobs.

When the mini beast-from-the-east got stuck in yesterday I thought we might see some cold-weather movement as a result. Two Dunlin E past the the harbour mouth and two Lapwings N inland probably count as such, and the Dunlin were apparently the first local birds this year. That was about it though. Still, a total of 17 Med Gulls heading inland from the offshore roost were nice too.

I had another go this morning. Not as windy, and still no snow, but bitterly cold. There were two Wigeon on the river, and another four flew over...

One of two Wigeon on the river. The first I've seen on the deck in West Bay.

These four went over while I was stomping round a field just inland.

While still on the seafront this morning I could see a distant flock of something-or-others slowly working their way W or NW, inland of Burton Bradstock. I suspected Lapwings, but they were simply too far away even for my super-lenient acceptance criteria. Some time later I picked up what was almost certainly the same flock, now over the fields N of West Bay...

109 Lapwings

I've seen Little Grebe on the river a few times, but never as close and confiding as this one...

This Little Grebe came so close eventually that I wondered if it was a bit unwell - right beneath the bridge I was standing on. It was clearly uneasy about my proximity, but rather than take underwater evasive action like they usually do, it slowly swam past and off upriver. And I mean slowly.

The final West Bay thrills of the day involved a winter-plumaged pair of cruise liners just offshore...


A third liner was approaching from further out. Wouldn't surprise me if there's a flock in the morning. At last, some decent cold-weather movement.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

West Bay YLG

Lockdown restrictions have made me look more closely at my very local birding. I'm glad really. Last Friday afternoon I chanced upon a flock of 50+ Siskins just N of town, in what I would call traditional winter habbo - riverside alders. Also 50+ Redwings, and a group of 9 Ravens mucking about high overhead. Nothing special, but pleasant surprises. Less pleasant, I've learned that most of the nearby farmland is basically dead. Well, perhaps that's an exaggeration, but certainly dead bo-o-o-o-oring. Handy to know for future apportioning of precious birding time...

I've certainly enjoyed poking around West bay, my nearest bit of coast, and that's where I headed late this afternoon. I bumped into Tom Brereton, and we joined forces to check out the local fields. Two Snipe and a Reed Bunting were my first of the year, and then we reached a point where you can check the flooded field over the river. A single Heron and a bunch of gulls. Not loads, maybe twenty-odd big ones and a similar number of small ones. The latter were all Black-headed and Common Gulls, and the former were Herring Gulls. Except one. Sitting in the grass was an adult with a seemingly darker mantle. Subtle, and it took a few moments to be sure this wasn't just an effect of the light, but yes, it looked promising for Yellow-legged Gull. At that moment a shower was passing, discouraging us from trying for a quick, distant snap. Unexpectedly a few of the gulls suddenly jumped up and flew a couple of yards, including the Yellow-legged candidate. Its legs were bright mustard yellow. Yes! Now was the time for a photo, while it was standing among adult Herring Gulls. Camera out, point, focus and...

Pox! Half the flock spooked over nothing and took to the air. This was the only shot I managed. At least the yellow legs are visible, and a hint of slightly darker uppers, lacking the blue tint of Herring Gull.

Unfortunately I latched on to the wrong bird in flight, and got a nice little burst of Herring Gull, as did Tom. Ah well. Still, I'm very chuffed all the same. It's my first Bridport area Yellow-legged Gull, and once again a great reminder to always - always - look at gulls. Quite often I've seen a small gathering in this spot. Never more than maybe 50 or so, but as we all know, it only takes one bird! There are sometimes a few on the river, right next to where it flows into the harbour. If a decent gull ever turns up there, the views will be seriously good. Point blank. I live in hope...

In a tongue-in-cheek illustration of their rarity down here, Steve recently calculated that he has averaged one Caspian Gull for every 19,500 Herring Gulls looked at. So if I diligently endeavour to clock up 100 Herring Gulls every time I visit West Bay I should get a Casp within the next 195 trips. Easy peasy.