Tuesday 30 January 2024

Counting the Roost

Many times I've seen the West Bay gulls arrive to roost offshore and have never felt any inclination to count them. But this evening I had a reason to: the BTO Winter Gull Survey. It isn't something I've signed up for exactly, but Mike Morse has, and asked if I would cover West Bay for him. Happily, said I. The idea is to find yourself a nice vantage point at least two hours before dark, then count gulls from it. Mike couldn't manage the key date (January 21st) so we agreed on 30th instead.

My sorry carcass has been hosting a virus party this last week and I have been seriously below par, shuffling about and coughing like an old man. But it felt good to expose the blighters to a bit of sea air this afternoon; hopefully not a few died of shock.

Conditions were almost perfect. Very nice light, a gentle NW breeze and soft swell. Sunset was just before 5pm, so I figured it would be pretty dark half an hour after that and arrived at 3:15. The count? 1254 Herring Gulls, 171 Black-headed Gulls, 12 Med Gulls, 5 Common Gulls, 2 Lesser Black-backs. The small gulls were almost all out there within the first 30 minutes, and the big ones dribbled in right up to sunset, with only 35 HGs after that. Most were counted individually. The only time I had to do some proper estimating was when a massive, twin-prop military chopper hammered past about six inches above the prom, prompting a mass exodus of 500+ HGs that had otherwise planned on a bit of casual loafing around the harbour before bedtime.

A local Peg. Also not keen on cliff-skimming helicopters.

Standing at the end of the West Bay prom with a scope on a tripod is a surefire way to pull in the curious, even on a mid-week January afternoon.

'What are you hoping to see?'

'Gulls. I'm hoping to see gulls.'


One bloke's initial question was: 'Are you expecting to see anything other than gulls?' Which was different, and hinted at birderishness. Sure enough, a member of the RSPB and pretty vexed that gulls were so hard, with all their tricky plumages and whatnot. My answer to his question had been 'No.'

I wasn't quite as brusque as that, and did explain that I was taking part in a BTO Winter Gull Survey and counting the birds coming in to roost. Yes indeed, counting them all. That didn't stop one couple trying to engage in a bit of chat, and I did feel slightly churlish going '71, 72, 73, 74...75' out loud, while staring at the sky and pointing at each bird.

It's much easier to be 'hail fellow well met' when engaged in the relaxed, unfocused, take-what-comes kind of birding I enjoy most. Unless I've just stumbled across a possible Caspian Gull of course.

Still, it was nice to do a bit of birding with a purpose behind it for a change, though I shan't be taking on any other worthy endeavours this year - too much else going on right now. The Winter Gull Project is set to run next winter as well, so hopefully I'll be able to contribute again in 12 months. Between then and now I can guarantee all my birding will be 100% selfish.

Sunset at West Bay. Gull roost well and truly counted.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Wot? No Waxwings?

West Dorset out of season is like a different place. Cogden Beach at sunrise last Tuesday...

Sunrise, but not much sun.

More than a mile away, at West Bexington, I could see a lone angler. And that was it. Perfect. I had an hour and a half. Forty-five minutes brought me level with the West Bex Mere, so I had a quick look before heading back along the beach. One Ringed Plover, about eight Red-throated Divers, plus a Med Gull in a passing flock of Black-headed Gulls was roughly what I expected, so no surprises there.

These two Red-throated Divers were a long way out. Max zoom + huge crop.

Still a lot of berries in the car park scrub. A few Redwings were well aware.

Right now we are 'enjoying' one of those crisp, sunny spells beloved of many who don't have to work outdoors. One day that'll be me. Meanwhile, an afternoon skive to West Bay with Sandra to look for Black Redstarts will have to do. We couldn't find any, but there were compensations...

One of two Purple Sandpipers on the West Pier rocks. My first this year.

This Gannet was worryingly close to the shore, and had what looked like a bloodstain on its left wing. So we were pleased when eventually it flew strongly out to sea.

And that about sums up birding efforts since the previous post.

My BirdGuides subscription expired in mid-December, at which point I lost track of the Waxwing insurgency. The only bird news I see nowadays comes via the local WhatsApp group or the Dorset Bird News blog, and Waxwing has barely featured so far. Still, the species is very much on my audio radar, and any time outdoors is equally divided between listening for Waxwing and saving my fingers from frostbite. I'm not optimistic about either, but you have to try...

Sunday 7 January 2024

The Best-Laid Plans...

Monday, January 1st had long been earmarked for the Big Walk. Stepping off your doorstep at first light, straight into the crisp and shiny new year with just bins and a camera, feels such a virtuous way to get the birding ball rolling. However, in 2024 it didn't happen. First off, the weather forecast was awful. Wet and windy from late morning. Great. Secondly, the previous afternoon we had waved goodbye to a friend heading back to London from Axminster Station, following a fortnight of high living, laughter and late nights. We are old now, and were therefore knackered. So the Big Walk became the Little Walk, and was preceded by the Short Drive. A Chiffchaff in West Bay was my January 1st prize.

But that was a week ago. And of course there has been plenty of time since then to get the year list up and running. Except there is no year list. No targets, no goals. In fact there is nothing to galvanise me into action other than a simple desire to get out there and see some birds. And right now I cannot be bothered.

The writing was on the wall more than a month ago. Prior to our friend coming to stay, I just needed to finish off one or two long-neglected DIY tasks to tidy the place up a bit. One thing led to another and, before I knew it, my 'one or two' tasks had morphed into 'lots and lots'. A made-to-measure composite front door is due to arrive tomorrow. At some point in the very near future I'll need to fit it, then treat the hallway with self-levelling compound before laying some flooring, and so on, and so on...

Our little bungalow is 50 years old now, and in many places ripe (desperate?) for renovation. Our neighbour had her ridge tiles rebedded a while back, and I can see that the mortar on ours has pretty much had it. So I've been researching the modern dry-ridge system with a view to having a go later this year. I've tried my hand at all sorts over the years and am pretty confident in most things DIY. Apart from moving the boiler from kitchen to loft (mains gas - definitely one for the professionals!) I installed our current central heating system without mishap, and actually enjoy such projects when they go well. I have an annoying perfectionist streak which balks at the idea of paying other people to do stuff which I could maybe have done better. Plus, mostly I couldn't afford to anyway!

So, yes, I have a lot going on. And I know the birding is going to suffer. Probably this blog too - no-one wants to read a load of DIY content in a birding blog. Birding will happen though, of that I am confident. Once again I am privileged to be a guide on the Seaton Birdwatching Tram, and will be leading our first outing of the year on February 10th. So I had better get some practice in beforehand!

A Chiffchaff at West Bay on Jan 1st is bird of the year so far. (Disclaimer: image may not depict actual bird on actual date in actual place. It is a Chiffchaff though.)