Monday, 26 July 2021

Pishing Out a Good 'Un

Every year I experiment with pishing. For the uninitiated, pishing is literally making 'pish...pish' sounds with your mouth in an effort to coax small birds out of cover. Google it. Once you persuade Google that yes, you mean pishing, not phishing, you'll get some handy links to browse. And straight away you will notice that they are nearly all American. As far as I can tell, pishing is a technique which gets little publicity on this side of the Atlantic. The only place I've seen anyone else try it properly is Scilly. I don't know who it was, but I was mightily impressed by his utter lack of self-consciousness. Because standing by a clump of bushes, loudly going 'PISH-SH-SH...PISH-SH-SH!' makes a person look pretty odd. Thinking about it though, maybe pishing is actually practiced a lot more often than I think...but only in private. I mean, I doubt very much anyone has ever seen me do it. Maybe we are all secret pishers?

Pishing, for me, is mainly an autumn thing. Certainly that is when it seems to be most productive. And I wonder if that's because the mostly young birds of autumn are especially inquisitive. At its best, you can pish at silent, 'empty' bushes, and instantly have three or four birds pop out for a look. At its worst, no amount of pishing has any effect whatsoever, to the point where I have occasionally wondered if I am just useless at it.

Anyway, here we are in early 'autumn', with the first trickle of juvenile warblers coming through. Pishing is back on the agenda.

Cogden is a great place for pishing. Nice bushy clumps, hedges and whatnot, and frequently a good view in all directions to reassure you that an unsuspecting member of the public isn't suddenly going to appear round the corner and catch you mid-pish. This morning I tried it first at the start of the coast path and got a Willow Warbler. Then at the boardwalk. Just a couple of Blue Tits. To be honest my efforts were somewhat half-hearted. Pishing requires a bit of work from your facial muscles, and mine are still a bit flabby from months of inactivity during the pishing off-season. Arriving at the turning-point of my morning walk, I paused briefly at the sallows and waited for something to move. Nothing.

'PISH-SH-SH...PISH-SH-SH...PISH-SH-SH...'

Almost instantly a warbler popped out on to some close, twiggy branches. It was in full sun, and the obvious yellow wash told me straight away that I had another Willow Warbler. Instinctively I checked the legs. They were very pale in the sun, but not the warm, yellowy pale of Willow Warbler; a colder, greyer tone altogether. And hefty-looking too! What?! The penny was beginning to drop. I checked its head. A plain, open face; no real supercilium at all...and with that, the bird flicked back into the bushes. Three, maybe four seconds of binocular view at point-blank range, and I hadn't registered even its bill colour, let alone primary projection. But surely this was a Melodious or Icterine Warbler?

I backed right off and pished some more. A few rubbish, fleeting glimpses, and then it appeared in the canopy, partially obscured, peering at me. I was desperate for some sort of photo, but really didn't want to mess up any chance I got. So, minimal zoom (300mm) to maximise the likelihood of something in focus. I managed one burst of four shots...

There it is, the lovely little dot. Full frame, uncropped.

The pale bill and plain, yellow-washed face are obvious here

This is the first shot in the series of four, and the best view of the wing. What can be seen of the primaries suggests a short projection, the greater coverts lack obvious pale fringes and there is no strikingly pale wing-panel on the secondaries. All points favour Melodious Warbler of course.

Without photos I would have been stuffed. To be honest, within moments of that bird first zipping back into the foliage I was already doubting what my eyes had told me. Mike and Alan joined me after a while, and searched for some time after I left, but it never showed again. Sedge and Reed Warblers showed, and a Garden Warbler. I do wonder, would I have talked myself out of it eventually? That yellow wash though...

Yes, without the photos I have a sneaky feeling that this would have been one of those horrible, nagging near misses.

Martin Cade at Portland Bird Observatory sees more UK Melodious Warblers than most birders (like the one five days ago for example!) and was kind enough to cast an eye over the photos. Timing-wise, Icterine Warbler is extremely unlikely anyway, but Martin can see nothing in the pics to suggest anything other than a typical, early-autumn Melodious Warbler. I'm more than happy to go along with that.

A bit of context. Most birders will think of Portland as the Melodious capital of Britain - which it probably is - but Dorset records average just three a year currently. And I was surprised to learn that neither Melodious nor Icterine Warbler is on the West Bex and Cogden list. Since I've lived in the south-west I dread to think how many hours, how many bushes, with Melodious Warbler all the while on the radar... For zilch.

And then this morning, out of the blue, mind not really on it...a bit of pishing...and pow!

16 comments:

  1. I saw Bill Oddie pishing years ago and have employed it ever since. It doesn't work every time but when it does it's worth the occasional odd look from passers by.

    (Thoroughly spell checked before submission)

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    1. Glad to hear that Bill Oddie was setting a bold example with some public pishing. And I agree; when it works, a little embarrassment is a small price to pay.

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  2. I pished a Pallass out once. To get it to work here, you need to be quite well hidden with a view. Then warblers will come and investigate but once they get sight of you theyre gone. I glimpsed said Pallass like your Melodious and off it went. I got down on the ground below the bush and pished. I was soon about 4 feet from my head calling, and watching me... In the states it is a doddle...

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    1. Excellent result! A pished Pallas' would be a dream bird here!

      My mind's eye pictures birder crouched awkwardly under bush, making funny noises, while bemused family stand watching from a distance. Small boy asking, 'Daddy, what's that man doing?'
      Almost tempted to sit down with biro and blank sheet of paper. But it's many years since my last cartoon...

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    2. That pretty much describes the scene except replace the nice family with a group of ner-do-wells shouting 'Hear, how, what the f*** are you dein...'

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  3. Great hit with the Melodious, buddy! Pishing is excellent, though loud squeaking often works better for me. I accidentally 'squeaked' in a Buzzard over a hedgetop once, it had the talons out ready to grab whatever it thought was making the noise. Not sure which of us was most shocked, they're very big birds up close! Luckily it reacted quickly and swerved to miss me whilst my mate just stood there, eyes wide and mouth open. I've pished in a good few birders on occasion. Yellow-brows absolutely love a pish, or a whistle actually. I even pished in what I suspect was a Pine Marten here on Skye. Frustratingly I had my eyes to the treetops at the time but a big gingery blur defintely came rushing out from beneath a nearby bush, just wish I'd been ready for it before it legged it straight back out of sight again.

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    1. Great stories, Seth. And further encouragement to keep at it. I have one of those red, wooden Audubon bird call devices. It makes a good squeak, but in years past I tried it many times with little result.

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  4. What a great find Gav - has inspired me to start looking in bushes on Orcombe again - something I've been neglecting lately. All the very best. Matt

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    1. Thanks Matt. Big surprise, as you can imagine! Mike and Alan had Sedge, Reed and Garden Warblers while searching for it, and I had another Sedge (my first of the year I think) on the return leg. So the bushes are well worth a check now, for sure. Looking forward to seeing what you dig out this autumn! 😊👍

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  5. Well done Gavin - Pishing is something that has worked brilliantly for me over the years keep it up. I usually go for it when no one is around, as its quite annoying for others to listen to! I think some people pish better than others. I have even tried a balloon with the mouth bit stretched to make a horrible high pitched squeal believe or not it worked on several species (firecrest, YBW and a Stoat!) but it takes a while to blow up the balloon to start with and the noise is definitely louder and more disturbing than lip pishing, you also don't have free hands for the camera...

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    1. Cheers Mike. Almost laughed out loud at the mental image of you in the Berry Head woods with a squealing balloon! Brilliant idea though! 😂 I always thought the big drawback with the Audubon bird call was the lack of hands-free.

      Like you I feel some birders are better at pishing than others. Interesting to think of it as a birding skill to be improved and honed. I shall henceforth work on my pishing musculature and technique to maximise volume and attraction... 😁

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    2. I think alternating volume and speed of pishes works well. I try to sound like a bird thta has found a snake, harsh scolding, lessen a bit, snake moves so extra loud scolding, try and think like a bird rather than just pishpishpish ad infinitum. Ditto the squeaks, faster tempo for excitement (I sometimes try to sound like a very hungry baby bird demanding food, lol) and slower to entice in birds that are just naturally curious. Treecreepers and crests come in to 'whispered' pishes better than harsh noisy pishes, young birds come in to anything, they're just inquisitive/learning anyway. And if you don't get any response, walk off a little way and try another attractant noise. The leg-locking ring on my old Slik D3 tripod used to produce the most wonderful squeaks when slowly twisted back and forth. Until it was dropped into the Basingstoke Canal, never quite sounded the same after that...

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    3. Great stuff. 'Birdwatch' mag needs to tap you up for an instructional article, Seth.

      As a postscript, Mike's description of balloon use kept coming back to me last night. I imagined something like a Vireo popping out of the scrub, and the shock of it causing accidental release of the balloon. Which then proceeds to whizz around over the bushes like a loudly rasping banshee!

      PRRR-R-R-R-R-R-r-r-r-r-r-fffft!

      I'm glad I wrote about pishing. 😄

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  6. A bit late catching up here Gavin - Top work and a great reward. I am a fan of pishing!

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    1. Thanks Chris. Looking forward to seeing what the Budleigh area rewards you with this autumn. 😊👍

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