Monday, 29 November 2021

Cirls

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

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

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

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

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

Male Cirl Bunting in the late afternoon gloom.

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

Male Brambling. Very sexy.

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 November 2021

Bird News - Part 1: The Need to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'll close with this vintage photo...

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

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

Next: The Grapevine

Friday, 26 November 2021

Forty Years of Bird Information 1981-2021 - Introduction

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

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

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

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

I shall close with a disclaimer:

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

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Birdfair

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

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

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

Anyway, will I miss it? Er...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 November 2021

Grumpy Virus Post

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

1. I have no current birdy stuff to share.

2. I am pretty hacked off.

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

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


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


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


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

Dated 28 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

A Funny Old Autumn...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Eleonora's Falcon?

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

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

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

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

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

The photo was taken at 07:55

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

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


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

Another disheartening tweet was this one from StonefactionBirding...


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


They replied as follows...

The final nails...

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

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

2. Always know when juveniles fledge.

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

Saturday, 6 November 2021

Cogden 2021: Shattered Dreams

Earlier today I read a BirdGuides article entitled Shetland 2021: shattered dreams. A tale of two birders who spend an autumn holiday on Shetland, hunting specifically for rarities. But they fail to find any, so the trip is of course a disaster. A number of self-found scarcities - including three Little Buntings - are obviously no consolation.

I sympathise. I get a lot of my birding jollies from finding rarities. Unfortunately, the last time that happened was 2015 (and even that occasion was not the blast it should have been) so imagine what a trialsome time I've had these last six years. And when I do get a chance to score, the rarity is snatched from under my nose while I'm photographing a Knot! Seriously though, I genuinely do sympathise. Because when your optimistic plans come to nought, it can be rather disappointing.

That introduction is a spurious lead-in to my latest tale of woe. Snow Buntings are turning up everywhere. Admittedly, in very small numbers. Like, one. Two sometimes. And by 'everywhere' I mean the odd spot here and there. So naturally I am optimistic about finding one along our local bit of Chesil Beach. This afternoon I ventured forth to scour the shingle...

Really I should end this post here. Because my quest for a self-found Snow Bunting was an utter failure. Despite slogging up and down that beach till I almost broke a sweat, I self-found no Snow Buntings at all. Thankfully I've learned to temper my grief by looking at dross. Which I shall now share with you...

This is a tiny fraction of a feeding frenzy about two miles offshore - maybe further - photographed at 2000mm full zoom. Enlarging it, I can see lots of gulls and a few Gannets. Along with two 2cy Pomarine Skuas and a Great Shearwater.*

The only reason I photographed these Cormorants was to illustrate the size difference between the last two, which are actually one behind the other in the same plane.

This juv was one of two Red-throated Divers


A smart adult Med Gull. I like the light in this shot.

At the end of my dreadful Snow Bunting disaster I found myself adjacent to Burton Mere. Yesterday I watched the Starlings come in to roost, and counted about 12,000. Unfortunately there was not much of a murmuration spectacle. They dived in to the reeds just after 16:20, when less than half had arrived. It was even worse today, and the first lot were in by 16:09, maybe 3,000 of them. Still, I hung about to see how many more might turn up. By the time I left I had counted 22,000! Who knows how accurate that is? They arrived in groups of anything from 5 to 2,000 or more. Plus a few singles. Tsk! Starlings. Just a boring common bird. Still, when Snow Buntings let you down you've got to do something to ease the pain.

A feature of this afternoon's Starling roost was the presence of one or two Sparrowhawks. Several times there was a rapid, stealthy sortie, low over the reeds. All failed. I know the feeling.

Male Sparrowhawk in the gloom, awaiting another chance. Considering this bird was 130m away, and the camera was resting on my knee at 1600mm (equivalent) zoom, 1/30 sec shutter speed... Not bad, if I say so myself.

So there we are. Despite the pulverising blow delivered by a total absence of Snow Buntings to self-find, I managed to get back up off the canvas.

* Yes, of course I'm joking.

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Wild Goose, Possibly

This morning I went for a walk at Cogden and saw a Barnacle Goose. It's the first I've seen locally, indeed my first for several years. Momentarily I wasn't entirely sure it was a Barnacle Goose. Quite distant, and I was looking into the sun, but its proportions, and what plumage detail I could make out, seemed fairly conclusive. Also I had picked it up on call, a note quite unlike anything else I could think of. Thankfully I had the recorder running, so was later able to listen again. Here are five calls, edited down to just a few seconds instead of the 30-something they occupied in real life...


The Barnacle Goose was heading east, and predictably was later seen at Abbotsbury Swannery. It constitutes my 165th local species this year. I know this because I am keeping a list. And as I inked in a little 'x' in the box next to 'Barnacle Goose', I found myself once again wondering about this listing game...

Do you know the first thought that came to me when I realised I was probably looking at a Barnacle Goose? This: 'Ooh, I wonder if it's genuine?' In other words, was I looking at a wild bird, fresh from some desolate northern waste? Or was it a plastic job, one of the burgeoning horde of feral breeders derived from various wildfowl collection escapees? As far as my list is concerned, it doesn't matter which. I really don't care. But as far as my birding sensibilites are concerned, well...

Widfowl frequently raise this issue but, one by one, the list of species affected by it is growing. Common Crane is an obvious recent example. Within just the last few years, that species has gone from definitely wild to 'who knows?' And just recently a seemingly vagrant Lesser Grey Shrike was discovered to originate from a reintroduction scheme on the Continent. If I am ever fortunate enough to see a White Stork soaring over the coastal ridge here I will definitely enjoy the spectacle, but the bird will nevertheless be somehow tainted. Why? Because it almost certainly will not be wild. And as for Great Bustard...

But what is 'wild'? The Red Kites which entertain each spring? The Capercaillie which thrilled me one frozen January day in the Highlands? The White-tailed Eagle soaring over Uig ferry terminal a few years back?

To be honest I struggle to articulate my thoughts on this issue. I simply know that some birds I am okay with, while others just feel 'off'. It isn't a question of reason or logic, but feelings. And try explaining it to a non-birder. They just think you're nuts.

Monday, 1 November 2021

A Happy Ending...Hopefully

The last post was mostly about a redpoll. Between then and now there have been a few developments, so this post is likewise rather redpoll oriented. But first I should set the scene with a brief - and scrupulously accurate - review of redpoll taxonomy...

There is only one species of redpoll. It is called Redpoll. But just one measly species for so many different-looking birds? Well, that will help no one at all to get their list buzzing along rapidly towards 500 or more, so, officially there are actually three species of redpoll. Much more list-friendly. They are called Arctic, Common and Lesser Redpoll. Basically Arctic is white, Lesser is little, and everything else is Common. In the part of England where I live, Lesser is by far the most likely redpoll species to be encountered. Personally I've not seen anything but Lesser Redpolls locally. Arctic Redpoll is stupidly rare here, and Common Redpoll is almost as bad. Any claim of Common Redpoll would need to jump through all kinds of hoops in order to eliminate the possibility of a badly misinterpreted Lesser Redpoll. At this point, enter the Cogden beast...

The Cogden redpoll

As you could probably tell from the previous post, this intriguing little bird got me all fired up and, with basically nothing else of interest around, it has had my undivided attention. And in yesterday afternoon's blasting hoolie I headed out once again to Cogden to see if it was still there. Flooded roads meant I had to walk all the way from Burton Bradstock, but I didn't care...

Rough...but lovely

The redpoll was exactly where it had been the day before, but in the dismal light it seemed a waste of time to take photos at pathetically slow shutter speeds, so after a few pitiful efforts I tried a bit of video...


I was very pleased with the outcome, especially as point-blank range means there is hardly any shake at all. The dreadful background noise is the sea by the way.

Anyway, when I first stumbled across this bird on Saturday, its appearance was so striking that as soon as I'd got a few shots I was straight on the phone to Steve Waite, hoping he might have had experience of a few Lessers in the hand during his ringing exploits. Among other things, we talked about the importance of biometrics (measurements taken when a bird is trapped for ringing) and whether it might be possible to assess the bird's actual size in the field somehow.

At the time I couldn't think of anything, but later that evening had an idea. So. Back to yesterday...

Despite the rubbish light I did take a handful of shots, for a very specific reason. When the bird had moved from its perch, I found a bit of dead unbellifer stalk, propped it up exactly where the bird had been, and took a photo from my original position. It wasn't perfect, but good enough I think. I then carried my precious, flimsily brittle stick the two miles or so back to Cliff Road in Burton Bradstock, trying not to let the wind snatch it from my grasp (or snap it) as I battled along the raging beach. And this evening I did this...

In-the-field biometrics (patent applied for)

Explanation: On the right is my stick, placed where the bird had been. When I got home I found two identifiable spots on the stick, two corresponding spots on the adjacent herbage, and measured the distance between them. I could then take that measurement back to the photo of the bird, and when I'd drawn some lines approximately where the start and finish of a wing-length mearurement would normally be taken, use my stick-gauge distance as a scale. That's where the figure of 76.8mm comes from.

Discussion: Yes, I know. Super-rough. But, I have been reliably informed that an in-the-hand measurement would likely be a few millimetres longer, because the wing is straightened and flattened against a rule. Also, if the bird is actually not 100% side-on to the camera, that wing will be foreshortened, so again, add a millimetre or two.

According to the definitive 2013 British Birds paper on redpolls, Lesser Redpoll wings measured from 62-77mm, with a mean of 69.5. Meanwhile, Common Redpolls of the Greenland variety (the suspected identity of the Cogden bird) measured between 71 and 85mm, with a mean of 78.4. I rest my case.

To be honest, I'd have been a bit stuffed if the measurement hadn't been favourable. But in the event it merely backs up what seems to have been a concensus view from everyone who has kindly thrown in their two-penn'orth on this bird. It appears to be a Common Redpoll of the Greenland type, Acanthis flammea rostrata. I understand this is a first for Dorset.

PS. Just in case anyone missed it, I did not find this bird; I saw it on its second day.

And this is a prime example of what sometimes happens when the birding is very slow. Out of nowhere comes a fascinating little bird which presents a challenging puzzle. And a bit of quality time is nicely repaid with a satisfying conclusion*. Brilliant.

*I hope.