Thursday 28 December 2023

Three Days

2023 birding has been great, but in three days it will all be over. Birders love January 1st. A fresh start, new plans, gym membership. But always there is first a little look back...

By sticking mainly to a pair of very local patches this year I did learn a lot of useful, birdy things about the Bridport and West Bay area, and had a few nice surprises, but by early autumn was more than ready for a change of scenery. My first visit to Cogden in August was like a lungful of fresh air. Oh, the easy solitude - despite West Dorset's swarming summer-season masses. The calm pleasure of it all was almost a spiritual thing, and I knew that my 2023 dabble at patch-working was over. In the end, Cogden produced some of my most memorable moments of the year...

One of maybe six Grey Phalaropes, including three in one visit.

After two in 2020, this was my third Cogden Wryneck, and the best performer.

A little influx of Ring Ouzels along the south coast on October 9th included these three at Cogden in the afternoon, following four in the morning.

West Bay did try very hard though, and will still be my seawatching venue of choice. How could it not be? At least four Leach's Petrels, my first Lyme Bay Sooty Shearwater for yonks, two Pom Skuas, 35+ Arctic Skuas, and the ludicrously extravagant gift of a close-in Great Shearwater...

If I were forced to chose a Bird of the Year, this is it. Great Shearwater, West Bay, September 20th.

Along with that singleton, there was also the incredible sight of some 30 large shearwaters - of which three were definitely Great - passing distantly offshore on October 13th. A sign of the times, perhaps?

One of West Bay's other attractions lies just inland of the harbour. The tiny Brit estuary can hardly be described as a bird magnet, and typically might give you little more than a handful of Mallards and Herring Gulls, but ju-u-u-st occasionally does better...

It took a while, but this August Garganey was probably my first decent find of the year.

My first West Bay Caspian Gull. Very, very welcome.

Waders are always at a premium locally, especially on the deck. I've certainly never put so much effort into papping a Redshank!

I already knew that vis-migging at West Bay's West Cliff can be very rewarding, and not just in terms of birds passing overhead, but was still a bit surprised to see a Cirl Bunting there. Nicely picked up by Tom Brereton...

West Dorset Cirl Bunting records are certainly on the up right now. Good news for a change.

I am normally pretty good at passing on bird news, and have rarely needed to keep anything hush-hush, but when word reached me of a Grey Phalarope at a slightly awkward site, I had no qualms about being rather selfish for once. As a consequence I enjoyed one of the best hour's birding ever. I just sat there and soaked it up...

October 8th - Grey Phalarope in late-afternoon sunshine.

2024 will be the same, but different. The same local focus, but no listing, and absolutely no boundaries. My aim will be simply to enjoy whatever comes along. The last few years have shown me just how exciting the birding can be in this joyously underwatched corner of Dorset, so I am quietly confident of a few thrills. But such moments are rare, and I look forward once again to finding ways to glean interest and fascination from the more everyday birds, to getting distracted by plants and insects, and to smiling a lot.

Thanks to all NQS readers, and I wish you too a smiley 2024.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Looking Back, Looking Forward

So, the moth trap has been out. I'm pretty sure it hasn't previously seen any action in December, but a vague Met Office mention of incoming air from 'the Tropics' tempted me. Friday night: zero moths; Saturday night: five moths...

Angle Shades is always welcome. Migrant? I really don't know.

A furry little December Moth, enjoying its NQS debut. There were two of these.

The other two moths were Epiphyas postvittana, or Light Brown Apple Moth; a familiar, everyday micro.

No longer having a Twitter account means I am completely out of the loop, moth news-wise, and have no idea whether migrants have been dropping in from warm parts afar. Nevertheless, I'll put the trap out again tonight. I guess there might be a chance.

I'm currently deep into some very overdue DIY at home, and a recent garage deck-clearing operation to make some work space saw me stow all my mothy paraphernalia until next season. It hadn't seen any use for several weeks, so I've surprised myself somewhat by getting it out again. And doing so has got me thinking about how my second - but first full - year of mothing went. Pretty well, I reckon. Not the migrant-fest of 2022, but still some cracking moths, including a few Dorset scarcities (rarities?) like Tissue and Royal Mantle, as well as my first Clifden Nonpareils, Lime Hawk-moth, etc. I suppose any normal blog would do a mothy review of the year, but I don't think that will happen here. There was a time when I kept a careful tally of the number of species recorded, how many were new for the garden and/or year...but, well, I kind of let it slip.

Looking forward to next year, hopefully there will still be lots of trap deployment, but maybe a more cherry-picking approach to its contents. I foresee a lot less counting.

Bird-wise, yesterday's postal delivery gave me good reason to do a bit of 'looking back'...

256 enormous pages.

Back in the day, the arrival of a shiny new county bird report was a big deal for me. At that time it would have been the London Bird Report. Obviously I would check for entries with the initials GMH attached - in the early years there were quite a few of those - and review any sections I had written. Then I would pretty much devour it from cover to cover. Forty years on, everything is a bit more low-key. Don't get me wrong - the 2022 Dorset Bird Report is an amazing publication. Clearly, a load of hard work went into the production of this tome, but none of it was mine. My name appears occasionally (Barred Warbler and Leach's Petrel records for example) but my contribution was otherwise minimal. I think even my 2022 records were automatically picked up from eBird entries.

Impressed as I am with this fine volume, I shan't be sitting down to read it from cover to cover. I shall browse and dabble, no doubt raising a surprised eyebrow from time to time or sighing at some depressing statistic of loss. Unlike my younger self, I no longer feel involved in the county-level birding scene, but more an outsider looking in. Interested, but not invested.

Looking forward, birding in 2024 will undoubtedly revert to a boundary-free approach. It will be 99% local, but no 'patch' as such, or at least nothing I could in good conscience call a patch.

Casting an eye over what I've written here, I realise some of it reads a bit like something from a 'review of the year' post. That's not intentional, but I wonder if I'm subconsciously wishing the calendar forward two weeks!

Saturday 9 December 2023

Losing It

'Take a seat, Mr Haig.'

I sat.

Next, a number of questions, which I answered as honestly and helpfully as I could.

Then, leaning forward: 'Okay, before we can carry out the test I just need to take a look...'

A few seconds later: 'Well...' and a sigh of disappointment.

Apparently my right eardrum was invisible, completely hidden by a wall of wax. The left side was partially blocked too. No hearing test today. I promised to get them sorted out asap, and rebooked.

A week's dosing with the excellently named Earol was followed by a short but satisfying micro-suction session at a back-alley clinic in town. The chirpy earwax removal chap took great delight in showing me the whopping nuggets of gloop thus extracted.

A few days later: 'Take a seat, Mr Haig.'

A much happier audiologist positively gushed at the sight of my straight, wide, apparently healthy - and now empty - ear canals.

'Wonderful! Wonderful! What a pair of beauties!'

The hearing test was straightforward enough. You wear headphones and listen for sounds, pressing the button on a hand-held pad whenever you hear one. I was occasionally fooled by the faint throb of a drill in a neighbouring property under renovation, but I doubt it made a lot of difference to the result. The result? Hmmm, yes. The result...

My audiogram - explanation below

In the chart above, the black lines represent my hearing thresholds for both ears at various frequencies, where O = right ear and X = left. The blue and red lines are nicked from a 2021 paper in The Lancet medical journal, and represent mean thresholds for Japanese men tested in a massive study involving thousands of participants. Blue = men in the age bracket 30-39; red = age 65-69.

According to the audiologist I saw my hearing is fairly typical of someone my age, and nothing to worry about. He reckoned that hearing aids were unnecessary. Back home I did a bit of googling and came across the Lancet paper. I am not quite in the 65-69 bracket yet, but already I seem to be slightly more deaf than a lot of Japanese blokes older than me. The good news is that I can hear speech okay, most of which registers in the lower frequencies. However, for me the higher frequencies are fading all too rapidly. The audiogram has frequency (in Hz) along the bottom axis and decibels up the side. A lot of birds - like Redwing and Firecrest, say - register at around 7-8000 Hz, which is pretty inconsiderate of them. But there is even worse news...

The decibel scale is not linear; it is logarithmic. As I understand it, what this means in practice is that an increase of ten decibels basically doubles the loudness of a sound. In other words, the ear perceives 30 decibels as twice the loudness of 20 decibels, and 40 decibels as twice the loudness of 30, and so on. Which means - looking at the audiogram above - that the faint 10-decibel Redwing call which the average 35 year-old Japanese birder can just about hear needs to be roughly THIRTY-TWO times as loud before my left ear can detect it.


It would be easy to see this in a very negative light, but I am grimly hanging on to my 'late middle-age' status while I still can. After moaning about one or more of the joyous delights that come with decrepitude, an elderly friend is fond of shaking his head and saying, 'Don't get old, Gavin.' To be honest though, I'll happily take that over the alternative.