Saturday, 30 January 2010

Walking in a woody wonderland

Ah, Yarner Wood....

I remembered today the first time I went there - well, worked it out. October 1985. That's a fair old time ago. Back then the Yarner Ravens were real celebrities - up there with the Pied Flys - now Ravens are everywhere, you barely register them any more. Ok, that's not really true - they're wonderful birds, magnificent; seeing scores of them over Dartmouth of a winter is an amazing sight. Watching them mess around over the Moor, annoy the poor Buzzards [once I saw a dead sheep - in attendance were 27 Ravens and one very nervous-looking Buzzard...], and generally cruise around saying "Wok", is always a pleasure. But they're pretty much everywhere 'round here.

Back to the point [yes, there was a point]. Things change. Often, things actually stay the same, but you've changed, so they seem to have. Yarner's still pretty much the same place it was 20-odd years ago. Oak and Birch, Holly and Beech, Pines and Bracken, Bilberry and Heather. You still have to watch every step, and you're still probably going to get rained on in some form. [Today it was snow - well, teeny li'l snowballs {If snow/rain is sleet, what is snow/hail???}]. You can also, at least on a day like today, still be gloriously alone. Last Sunday, there were moments with just the wind in a grass and the water in the leat. Today there was, while not so pronounced - trees are noisier than grass - a purer silence. When you can hear so very much more. Wind huurshing through twigs, moving limbs creaking and squeaking, touching branches knocking and tapping. The slight crackle of a leaf under your foot as you shift your weight while turning your head. Distant bird calls; Coal Tit and Blue Tit - contact calls, a band of Long-tails and Goldcrests, there! A Blackbird advertising a predator. The sound of a diesel, coarse and throbbing, well to my right - maybe at the farm, a dog barks across the far side of the valley so far and yet so noisy, a leaf comes loose at last and bounces its way downwards...
And to see as well - the snow, glare of reflected light sucks all colour from the bare patches of ground, making the green-grey-brown of the strip of life between land and sky seem to sit on black and white. Yarner lives in layers of colour, in winter as much as spring and autumn [and oh, in autumn sunshine after the rain - golden floor, black walls, blue roof!]. Next time you're there, look. Ground, trees, sky. Maybe ground, bushes, little trees, big trees, sky, even. Have you seen the wet tree trunks so black, the autumn bracken like wrought copper? Have you stood in summer, heard the leaves rustle above, heard the rustle below, found your perspective shift as then you realise this isn't your wood, but that of the ants and they are everywhere. [Have you stopped in the wrong place, then suffered a string of antisocial puns from your amused companions?]

There are still parts of Yarner that are quiet, on all but the busiest of days. Today, the icy roads kept people off, perhaps. Or the threat of snow, maybe? Possibly just the need to shop shop shop? Doesn't really matter, I suppose. It was quieter than I expected, and once I got away from the main route, I didn't meet a soul until I went back to it. Joy. Well, I say not a soul. Not a human soul - there was life all around and about. [[An aside; smilies are useful things, but there aren't enough of them to really convey expression properly - I have a smile on my face right now, remembering what happened today, that a :) or a :D don't come near to conveying properly]]. Do you know how hard it is to walk quietly on crunchy leaves covered in snow? I was standing on one of the tracks that are good for Pied Fly, listening. I've written much of what I heard up there ^. Then, there came the sound of crunching leaves. Odd ones here and there. People? Blackbirds? [Almost any noise you hear in undergrowth is a Blackbird]. Then a sudden start to my right - a Red Deer! A hind leapt away - two bounds to behind a Holly bush. Less than 30 feet - she must have come up behind another piece of cover to not see me until so late. As I looked I realised there were more - a herd was passing over the ridge - all around me. Woah..... A much more sudden start - behind me a surprised grunt! a rustle of bilberry and whoosh! a Woodcock flushed! Close enough to hear the Woodcock's call, the sound of its wingbeats as it went one way the deer the other and I spun around to the aftermath.. I can count the number of times I've seen Red Deer at Yarner, in 23 years, on one hand. Counting the whole Moor, two hands. [More Sika, fewer Roe]. Never had anything like that happen to me. Reminds me a little of a time at Fernworthy - but that's another tale.

There were some great birds, and some great views, as well. Nuthatches, Marsh Tits, point-blank Goldcrests, and one particular Treeeeecreeper [I can't but spell it that way, I'm afraid] were the star performers.

I left sharp, worrying about re-freezing roads. Needn't have bothered, of course, but oh well; better safe than off the bank and into the ditch! Only off note [other than two large women with two ugly dogs off the lead - too far away to harangue, alas] was the emptiness of the feeders at the hide - poor birds came but there was nowt!

Next time I'll have to remember to bring some rations.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Really brief update

Today, at last, after far too long, and some more procrastination here, there was at last a Blackbird!

Woo.

He hasn't explained where he went to, or where the others are, he just came in and munched the sultanas.

The Song Thrush has been about - coming in when he's not putting up a near one-bird Dawn Chorus [only the Robin for competition!]. Mr. Blackcap is holding the fat block against Mr. Blackcap, the Sparrows, Greenfinches, Dunnocks, Woodpigs, Herrings, Blue and Great Tits are more or less back to their pre-cold snap patterns. The assorted corvids are doing their usual things... It's pretty much business as usual bar the Blackbird drought.

Hmm, this blog is getting a bit too "where I went an' wot I saw"... I think I'll have to do something about that.

Monday, 25 January 2010

A nice stroll on't Moor

Yesterday dawned, well not bright and sunny, but with reasonable prospects and at least it wasn't raining. A leisurely stroll along the scenic section of the Devonport Leat that runs between Nun's Cross and Burrator was the order of the day - always pleasant when its not too windy.

Leats are one of the less famous features of Dartmoor - discrete pieces of exquisite Victorian engineering, they contour hillsides, carrying water at a neat 1/3 to 1/2 a degree of slope. Mines, reservoirs, naval dockyards, the destinations of the water could be a few hundred yards or tens of miles distant. Many are dry, almost all have been diverted from their original goal, but like the tin workings, they are very important in adding habitat to the Moor. The Devonport Leat has one particular feature that makes it stand out - just before it reaches the plantation around Burrator Reservoir it crosses the River Meavy. To do this it first turns down the hillside, then crosses an aqueduct. Doesn't sound much, does it? For the kilometre before the drop, it speeds up with a series of steps, rushing in a very unleat-like way, then a curve left and 130 feet of white water dancing straight down the hillside, then swirling through a half-pipe 15 feet above the Meavy, before taking on an infill from the river, then slipping back to its placidly flowing former self. On a cold winter's day, in the low yellow sunlight, with ice forming all along the sides, its truly magical. The transition, first from high moor views to the Meavy valley, then into the trees of Burrator, is all part of the experience.

High south Moor in winter means a few corvids, a Skylark or two, the odd Mipit, and maybe a non-Buzzard raptor if you're really lucky. Wet bits give a shot at Snipe, possibly Jack. Thus it was, except for the raptors, of which there wasn't a sniff all day. The clouds broke up, the wind didn't howl, the views were lovely, the going wasn't too bad at all, and while there were a fair few out, they were mostly elsewhere. What? Nothing wrong with a bit of peace and quiet, sound of the wind and all that - its one of the few places where you can avoid hearing traffic [unless the wind shifts and some buggers take their Kawasakis out for a burn...]. Things were quiet enough for me to be composing an uneventful blog entry in my mind, when a young chap running the other way along the opposite side flushed a Jack frickin' Snipe right past us.... Not just that but the thing called as it went by - I've never heard a squeak out of a Jack before - but then I've never had one flushed towards and past me either! It is my experience, and now [after the Affairs last year] firmly held belief, that you can only see Jack Snipe when you aren't looking for them. "'itch!" "'itch!" "'itch!" indeed....

Burrator had more birds - Siskin, Bullfinch, Crossbill, Goldcrest, GSW, 2 gorgeous and very showy female Green Woodies, plus a lucky Magpie with a lump of someone's picnic that was bigger than its head... The sloping grass just north of the Burrator trees held an interesting group - 7 Fieldfare, 5 Redwing, and a Grey Wagtail. Last but not least, as dusk began to fall, a lone Herring Gull flew determinedly up the Meavy valley.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Some people have all the luck...

Today it seemed to be me. Eventually.

I like Shrikes. They're pretty and slightly psychotic, I imagine when a Robin looks in a mirror, a Shrike is what it sees [at least briefly, before it attacks its reflection]. I remember seeing a picture of the Great Grey Shrike at Fernworthy last year, sitting in a conifer looking at a GSW. You could see it thinking "Hmm, good eating on one of those!" And they are so very pretty.

[Presumably] same GGS has popped up at Bellever last couple of days, so today I went to see it. Having seen [presumably] it there last year, [and Sousson's the year before] I knew it liked to find a fairly quiet bit of turf, out of the wind and in the sun, then patrol a route around it. Assuming it got food and not too many visitors [and the wind didn't change] it could stay in the same spot for a long while. So, stuck the Big Scope in the rucksack and went with the intent of finding said spot and spending a quality hour or three with some nicely crippling 75x views.

Best laid plans and all that.

First we have the "It was here 5 minutes ago..." Coupled with "It went thattaway" . So off I trundled, not too fussed, some nice birds already and it was a glorious day to be up on't Moor. One long circuit of bits of Bellever I hadn't seen for longer than I care to admit and back where I started, still Shrikeless. Time's pressing and I want my lunch - but sitting my behind down when I don't know where the Shrike is is something I'm not happy with at all. The 5 brave birders who arrived too late for the early morning viewing have a sort of discussion. Various birders go various ways. I go for the Tor, thinking for height, or at least somewhere out of the wind. Before I get to the slope - there's the Shrike, lurking in the tops of the new growth trees [looked like it was after the Coal Tits]. But where are all the birders? Nobody in sight! I shift position, hoping to see someone, I lose the Shrike, I find some birders. Time passes. [About 2 hours, I think...] No Shrike. Birders go in various directions. I try the Tor, then circle round the other side of where it was. Back where I started, no Shrike. Time's passing, Sun's westering. Try somewhere else - the Cherrybrook valley has some nice Shrike country. Head that way, sit on a nice bit of old wall, watch a heron pretend to be a Black Stork - [you know the little picture in the Bird Guide of a Black Stork in a conifer? - just like that; I almost fell off the wall laughing at it, then the bugger flew off just as I was pressing the shutter!]. No Shrike, but oh well. Cast my eye about for other possible Shrike spots - hmm, a few low trees by Powder Mills, maybe it we- oh £&@§ there it is! Yes folks, the reason why the Shrike's been so elusive; it flew over to the old Powder Mills [by the big chimney 630771 or so]. Thanks to the wonders of 75x, I got reasonable views for about 40 minutes; it was feeding on small ground stuff, and also occasionally perching in full-size deciduous trees [!] as well as using three 'proper-sized' small trees / large bushes, before it once again waited for me to take my eye off it before pulling a Houdini. Magical birds.

House Sparrows, Dunnocks, Greenfinches, and "That's Mr. Blackcap to you" more evident in the garden, but still a lack of Blackbirds. Has anyone seen them? I'm beginning to wonder if they were abducted by aliens or something....?

Friday, 22 January 2010

Quickie Update

I ought to inflict another rant of a Birding Nature upon your helpless eyes, but time's a' pressing so it'll just be a quick update on goings-on and a Mystery.

Bird Wars; there have continued to be no Fieldfare sightings since the frontal system went through a week ago. Mr. Blackcap is holding on to the fat block, and trying for the whole garden when the Sparrows and Greenfinches let him. Interestingly, there have been no thrushes of any kind seen in the garden! There is at least one Song Thrush in the area - I hear him singing first thing - but no sign of any Blackbirds, which is weird to say the least... They're normally even more reliable than the Sparrows, and they nest here! Apple left out is pretty much untouched, a few sultanas go - but that could be Woodpigs. Answers on a postcard, ladies and gents... Generally things have quietened down a lot - fewer birds on the seed feeders, the sunflowers seeds are at less than 1/4 a day, when the week before it was 2 refills a day! - and Blackcap is at number one for sightings [how many gardens can say that?]. I suppose the shift in weather's opened up a lot of food sources - things frozen in the cold and brought out by the rain, maybe?

In other news, I am not doing a Yearlist. I am not doing a Yearlist. I am not doing a Yearlist. I am not doing a Yearlist.....

I'm just making a note for comparative purposes. I'm not chasing yearticks, now am I? Devon Ticks are fine. Lifers and Brit Ticks very fine. Yearticks [not that they are, except technically] are just a side effect of enjoyable relaxing birding. Seeing birds because I like to see them, because they light up the world, not because I haven't seen them since the calender changed. Remember the stress? Remember the Jack Snipe Affair? Make that Affairs?
Exactly.


And there's always next year!

Oh dear.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Duuh-dum duuh-dum duuh-dum duuh-duh

It's a nice warm [well, for January] sunny day with not too much wind, what to do? See if I can dip that drake Smew again? Go on a Wild Harrier Chase in cornwall? I know, lets go to zummerzet!

Yes, a nice day on the Levels was had yesterday - spoilt for choice as to where to go! Decided that getting to Ashcott Corner early was probably a good idea [oh how right that one turned out to be!] so started there and yomped over to Decoy. Cunning plan behind this being that as, while Noah's is definitely the best hide for seeing stuff, its also the smallest and the busiest. Its the only hide I've ever been to where you sometimes have to queue to get in [not counting twitching situations]. This meant that the Whoopers were missed [I knew I should've scoped the swans more thoroughly from the track...], but you can't see 'em all.
Also, a 3.5km walk before lunch was a good thing after all the festive excesses [and ice-related slacking of the last couple of weeks!]. Decoy's an interesting hide - arguably the most scenic view going, but rarely much in the way of birds hanging around. The walk out had provided a good start; 4 Little Grebes in a row and a surprise drake Goosander on Noah's, an adult female Marsh Harrier hunting the east end of Decoy [seen from the track], and several Cetti's still going - including a couple that actually showed themselves. Hordes of squealing Mipit-murderers lurked unseen in the reeds, a very showy [and vocal] pair of G-S Woodies, and a couple of Goldcrest with LTT near the Sweet Track. Decoy itself seemed fairly quiet, a brief Harrier popped over the trees, the present Mutes, Coot, Mallard, Cormorants and a score or so of both Tufties and Gadwall were joined by a dozen Canadas, but everything mostly stayed up the back.
Now comes the bit where you start humming the Jaws music.. Big white bird comes up and flies head-on from the SE corner "Looks like a swan* flying towards us, low from the back right" says I, not wanting to say more until I scoped a bird with not much of a swan jizz at all [having had great embarrassment at calling a Mute as a GWE a few years back on the strength of an end-on flight view]. This time, however, I was able to paraphrase Kenobi... "That's no Mute, that's a Great White Egret!!"**
The resident Levels bird [showing winter-coloured bill and legs] treated us to a majestic low level flypast at it moved to Canada Farm - brilliant!

*[[Yes, I know I should say 'Mute Swan', but I can't be bothered - winter swans get specified, and as I've never confused anyone by doing it, I'm unrepentant!]]
**[[I'd like to apologise to all StarWars fans for that one]]

Heading back, a nice and still very freshly-plumaged Reed Bunting was overshadowed by a very messy 1w drake Goldeneye on Tank 2 - looked very mottled and generally strange.. Seeing the horde that was assembling for the Starling Spectacle, a relocation to Catcott seemed a good idea. Not a moment too soon! They were already parked along the roadside for several hundred metres in both directions; it was worse than the Little Bittern Twitch, worse than the December when the Starlings were roosting right by the track and they'd been on Autumnwatch. It was hard enough getting out at 3:40, I hate to think of the chaos when they all left...

Catcott was busy too! Contrast to Decoy [and most of Shapwick - only Noah's had plenty of birds] it was hotching with wildfowl. Hide was pretty much full too, though it mysteriously emptied within 10 minutes of sitting down... [I'm not sure what to make of that - maybe they were all rushing off to Ham Wall? I don't think I smell....? ;) ] There's not quite as pretty a backdrop as Decoy, but far more birds, and far closer! Many hundreds of duck - Wigeon, Teal, Shovelor, Pintail, and Tufty all in good numbers. The Ibis decided not to show, but there was a comfortable grandstand view of the Starlings instead! Optics were needed, but I think there wasn't much in it in terms of views compared to staying at Ham Wall, with the benefits of sitting down and not being in a crowd [or under a hundred thousand birds in need of the loo....]! 3 Marsh Harriers, a Peregrine [with kill], a Kestrel, and a couple of Buzzards were the raptors on show. No Bitterns, but you can't have everything. The duck came right up to the hide - gorgeous on a mirror-smooth surface in the golden light.....

Trip back was marked by a distinct lack of owls and Woodcock, alas, but it had been a very pleasant day indeed.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

*Straws, Clutching at.

Spent the morning trolling about the Exe, seeing a lot of very nice birds - waders [assorted] were performing particularly well in the funny light today - but no sign of the frickin' Smew. Of course.
All the wind and rain may have had something to do with it, the vast amount of muddy water [and the remains of a couple of acres of woodland, it seems] rushing seaward almost certainly did. R-B Mergansers and Tufties were making do [though going backwards very quickly whenever they surfaced, and having to fly back upstream every couple of minutes!], so why the Smew wimped out I do not know.... The wonderful mass of Avocet and Blackwit at Bowling Green, then later out on the Clyst and Exe flats made me feel a teeny bit better, but not much. :( Even repeated Avocet flypasts didn't help [and have you seen Avocets flying past? Guaranteed to bring a smile!]. Ok, too much weather? Shelter at newly ice-free Bowling Green! Can't find dinner in fast river? Go to Bowling Green! Even Matford! Exminster Lagoon? Straws straws straws.... I went up to CWP for a reason - its where they are. They don't belong here, the freak weather's gone and so have they... :(

After a long wait and think at Exton, I decided on Plan S*. So, off to Slapton to see if the redhead that had been hanging about there was feeling more co-operative. Making the trip in record time [despi-LONG RANT ABOUT DRIVING DELETED] and having very quickly scanned the Upper Ley for low-flying Bitterns / GWEs / Marsh Harriers [one day I'll see Her Ladyship actually at Slapton!] I saw that Friday's entry on the blackboard had had 'Same again' added for today - the thickest straw so far. Trying not to run, I got to the funny 'part bridge, part gazebo' viewing platform to find a couple of birders playing hide-and-seek with the Long-tail. "Smew's over there" they say. The scope's out before I finish saying "Cheers". Result?

DINGDINGDINGJACKPOT!!

Oh what a glorious little bird! Have I mentioned how much I love Smew? I have? Oh.. ok then. At the back of Ireland Bay, asleep when I got there, later had a preen, a few dives by the reeds, then was harassed by a white-headed Mutant Canada Beast but evaded it via impressive diving skills. Stayed watching it for a while, got very rained on, didn't mind. :D
The male Long-tailed Duck was there, but very slippery indeed. Mostly underwater, his plumage merged with the light coming off the wavelets as he stayed low on the surface. That meant his dark cheeks were often all you could see, making him seem like a smaller darker bird, such as say the Little Grebe that was in the same area - tricky! The Black-necked Grebe was a little more obliging, though also staying on the east side of the Ley. Most obliging of all, however, were the pair of G-C Grebes who were displaying just off the pillbox as I was leaving. One wasn't quite in summer plumage, and they didn't get all the way to the Weed Dance, but still - mid January.

On the Home Front; no sign today of the Fieldfare, though no Blackbird dared disturb the apples...

Friday, 15 January 2010

Things that go "Hetsch!" in the night....

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. Not uncommon, I know. Bit annoying, especially when you have to get up Too Early to go to work. So, you wake up, look at the clock, think "0200. What does the 0 stand for? Oh goodie, I don't have to get up yet!" You're just about to re-collapse, when something goes "Hetsch!" "Hetsch!" Now you know you're awake, you know you heard it. Quite clear, maybe from the dark bit beyond the foot of your bed. "Hetsch!" it goes again. Or maybe they go... "Hetsch!" Very awake now, light on. Nothing there. "Hetsch!" Up. The brain, which has been spooling up [never very good first thing] points out that the roof up there [paint, cardboard, and tar] is thin enough to hear all sorts of things through, isn't it, and haven't you heard audiomig through it before? "What bird goes 'hetsch!'?" it then asks itself. Pause. I know this one. Click. Snipe! Ooh, they must have been low to be that loud - maybe skimming the rooftops going to or from the allotments up the hill? [newly thawed]. Snipe, here! Brilliant! Argh, look at the time...

That was yesterday. Fieldfare's still knocking around - sorry knocking the Blackbirds around - but a neighbour's been playing Bob the Builder, so the birds haven't been much in evidence.

Now then, what to do tomorrow? Weather seems to say wet and windy and not unfavourable for first seawatch of the year. Todd's version of Canada at Slimbridge. Mobile and elusive Pallid Harrier around the wild wild west of cornwall. No reports of annoying-yet-still-adorable Smew since Tuesday [surprise surprise....].
Decisions, decisions.....

EDIT; Thanks to Certain Webmasters for updating their sites, I now know said Smew are still on the Exe, though mobile, and there's another redhead at Slapton! Now, there are doubtless many who are saying to themselves "Well, if that fool had a pager he'd know all this, now wouldn't he?". This is of course true, but [as I'm sure you know I'm going to say] I'm backward like that.
See you on the Exe!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Significant Birds

With the air filled with sideways sleet, most of the birds here are cowering out of sight. Fieldfare and Blackcap are still around, just staying somewhere less exposed.

With the Smew on the Exe [still, I think? - I hope!] I've been thinking about my favourite birds, and indeed some of the 'biggest' birds I've had the fortune to encounter. By biggest I'm not so much talking about rarity [let alone size! ;) ] but the ones that have had a real effect on me.

[Yes, this is one of those pondering, philosophical-type posts you've been threatened with...]


I think almost every birder has a First Bird. Not the first they'd ever seen, but a bird that changed the way they looked at the world, that set them on the path, so to speak. After all, most people just see birds as birds - the general background awareness, the things you see on the telly, and which sometimes relieve themselves all over your car... But sometimes something a bit special happens, and your view changes.

I had such a moment, back when I was very, very young. Do you remember the 80s? After the Falklands, but before the popular press decided Maggie was The Devil Incarnate? It was spring and I was at Infant School. One day we went down to beach, and I , being adventurous and fond of discovering new things even back then, went off clambering over the rocks along the waters edge towards the Devil's Armchair. I think I was pretending they were the high Alps, the sea was a 10,00 foot drop, and I was fighting German mountain troops in WWII. [Hey, it was what all the kids did back then!] Working my way around well out of sight of the family [who never approved of my mountaineering, for some reason, though I tried not to go up high, really!], I'd come across an inlet in the rocks and stopped to work out how on earth I'd get around it without the Nazis seeing me, when I suddenly realised I wasn't alone. A bird had swum into the inlet. It was very close - less than 15', maybe even 10' - and I was pretty much at water level. It was a big bird, dark above, paler throat, with a beak like a bayonet. It didn't move like the ducks I'd seen on ponds, it glided across the water like silk. It looked right at me with its dark red eyes, then turned oh so smoothly and swam back out to the open sea again. I was transfixed. I'd read and loved Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' series, and I knew I'd just met the bird that gave the title to one of my favourites - Great Northern.

Knowing what I do now, it was a 2cy bird; too inexperienced, perhaps, to be very afraid of a small, still human. The small human took virtual possession of his parents' Collins Birds of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, spent hours looking at it, then set about talking them into some bins... More than a quarter-century later, I still have a special place in my heart for the GND [though the bins - Miranda 8x30s, which I was very proud of as they had 'gold-coated optics' - are alas long-gone].

I met another Great Northern much more recently, having just seen the [very unamused-looking] Laughing Gull in Brixham Harbour. This diver was an adult, fishing in the outer harbour, and I stopped on the breakwater, and sat down to watch it. After about 5 minutes of watching it at up to 150' or so, it disappeared below the wavelets with the usual nuclear submarine-like effortlessness, then came up just as smoothly less than 30' in front of me. It looked right at me and held my gaze for several seconds, as if it was wondering why this human was stopped and sat, when all the others up there were hurrying along in the cold wind, not looking at it at all. It sat high in the water, evidently unthreatened, and looked at me with those red eyes, then turned away, looked about briefly, and dived - coming up two boats away. I almost forgot about the Gull, Lifer though it was.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Ahem...

[Note for those of an innocent {or curious} nature; the streams of seemingly random symbols in my last post were Ancient Devonian Swear-words, which the system refused to translate.]

Right then, I'd like to say I feel better, but that wouldn't really be accurate... Mr and Mrs Smew are apparently still on the Exe, and if they deign to stay until Saturday I will have the chance to feel better [before zooming off to the wild wild west of cornwall again..!].

Few indeed and happy are those birders who've never felt the urge to twitch, and who thus have never suffered the agonising wait - trapped by commitments that even they dare not breach; be they work, school, or family - while hour by hour, day by day, that wondrous bird shows to the jammy sods who don't seem to have jobs/lives/cares in the world, knowing that any second could be the last... That eternal breathless wondering.......... Will it stay?

Birds that have stayed are the now seemingly resident garden Fieldfares - indeed they've set up Bird Wars II! Adult Fieldfare has decided that not only the Garden, but also the neighbours' garden, is his/her personal domain, and woe betide anything bigger than a finch that comes in to try to munch on the assorted apple [and now pear] thirds.... 1w Fieldfare is putting up a claim to next door, but Song Thrushes and Blackbirds are getting severely pummeled - Starlings and the Redwing seem to have beaten a retreat. Blackcaps are too small for either Fieldfare to be bothered with, and they've continued Bird Wars I on their own - male Blackcap still more-or-less holds the fat block, but female and male Blackcaps have been getting at the apple fairly regularly. Sparrows and Greenfinches squabble over the feeders, Robin and the Dunnocks make sporadic attempts on the roofed tray, while the Chaffinches mostly watch disconsolately as the Flying Hoovers [ie. Woodpigs] devour everything spilled from said feeders [which have been VERY carefully placed, with much judicious pruning, to stop said Pigs from hoovering up everything in the feeders as well].

Additional from previous posts;
For Saturday; I have indeed never seen B-N Grebe on the Exe, and also forgot to mention another Location Tick - 2 Purple Sandpipers flew upriver past me a couple of minutes after I arrived at Cockwood Crossing. Purples were my first Sands [due to being formerly ubiquitous at Haldon Pier], and I still tend to go "Oooh, pretty Purple Sands" and not think too much more about them. I guess they were also avoiding the easterly-driven seas.
For Sunday; Something which should have dominated my post! I'd hoped, theorised, and generally thought "One day, one cold winter, one perfect spring... maybe?" But it actually came true - I now have all 4 'peckers on my Patch List!!! Joy of joys, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker... ::Fond sigh:: I don't know if it had moved down due to the cold weather, or if it was just being bolder [I hope the latter - there are woods enough and the habitat's the same as other places they breed. I, understandably I think, say no more]. Also, not all the Goldcrests had succumbed to the cold - at least 2 were still going, and while there haven't been any Coal Tits in the Garden, there were plenty knocking about the more sheltered Patch areas.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

WARNING - Due to extreme gripping, this post may contain naughty words.

Why the warning? Well, you know what I did yesterday? Shot in the dark, million-to-one chance and all, so not too disappointed with failure.

Guess what's been reported on the Exe Estuary today.

Only a pair, yes a £@^^*&$%@£$@{* pair of Smew!
@$(£@$$^*^£$@!$&±&*+$%£^£%$^%£%@%@%$^$@%*^@£|~%*!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

When can I now next get to the Exe Estuary in daylight?

Not 'til ^&&*@%^$ Saturday!!!!
Double £*$@%$^*$$^(@{}@£^&$^&&*&%^£$%£$%^&^%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You know, it's times like this that make me want to take up robbing banks or something - make your own hours, twitch wherever and whenever you want, buy lots of shiiiiiiiiny birding stuff..... Course there's always the risk of getting banged up and say a Golden-winged Warbler turning up at your house, but with the way the 'justice' system is these days, escaping [or indeed just getting let out after doing a couple of months] doesn't seem to be that hard....

Jaded? Cynical? Gripped!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You see, not having a yearlist to think of, I'd decided to leave the poor Backwater Bittern alone, and instead I was going to write a long post about birding philosophy or something, decided to have a good patch patrol first, and now I get in to this...



If I manage to get over feeling sorry for myself I may be back later to post properly.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Isn't it sunny?

An interesting day in Gloriously Sunny Devon [and it has been, sunny that is, glorious is a little debatable].

Firstly, Bird Wars update; male Blackcap seems to have seen off male Blackcap, latter is now to be found sulking and munching palm seeds up the road [when he can get the Starlings off them]. Second female Blackcap has arrived, making a non-passage high count [5 being the all-time maximum]. Currently the two females are studiously not trying to kill each other, [possibly due to it being far too cold for even them]. Victorious male has had a mixed day - he successfully drove off all-comers, up to and including three Greenfinches at once with his terrifying threat display, but then the sun was blotted out and he fled in panic as a huge monster landed right on his beloved fat block..... What was this avian titan? It was only a Fieldfare!!!

::Less excited voice:: Only a Fieldfare? Back in the 90's, a cold snap brought about 100 Fieldfare and Redwing to our parts, and a few graced the apple and sultanas on the shed roof, but never before has one actually come in. These two not only came in for the apple [now on the ground due to the local Herrings demonstrating their ability to swallow a thirded apple whole] but also the Holly berries on our bush [its less than 5' tall, and this is the first year its properly berried]. Overjoyed ain't the half of it! Only two? With the thousands knocking about? Ah, but I live in a very urban area - a terraced house with a 1/4 tennis court garden - and while there are allotments and some trees up the hill, its mostly brick and tarmac around here. [Especially as our beloved Council are doing their very best to fell every single mature tree they can reach - up to letting certain homeowners do it for them. Allegedly. But I digress]

The garden had a constant stream, broken only by forays to break and re-break the ice. As well as the 4 Blackcap and 2 Fieldfare, there were 5 Redwing, 2 Song Thrush, at least 5 and possibly 7 Blackbird [including Red - a male with a distinct red tinge to his bill, who first showed up last winter], 3 Chaffinch, 7 plus Greenfinch, 8 plus House Sparrow, Dunnock, Robin, 2 Great Tit, at least 1 and maybe 3 Blue Tit, at least 11 Starling, 2 of the local Jackdaws called in, with 4 Carrion Crow and a dozen patrolling Herrings, also 4 plus Woodpigs and 2 Feral Pigs. Also I've just this second [2114] heard a flock of Redwing going overhead! On a less positive note, after a pleasant absence since the snow fell, I saw the first cat tracks when I got in this afternoon - out front, but still not welcome!

I was returning from a wild Smew hunt on the Exe estuary - went this afternoon after I finally defeated the ice lumps. I could have gone earlier, but the fun out the back window was just too much to ignore! The trip out was notable for the flocks of winter thrushes [seemingly about 50/50] and also several groups of inland Lapwing - though none were bigger than low double figures. The wind howling downriver made it feel as though the weatherbods' comparisons with Antarctica weren't that over the top after all... Figuring that a Smew would most likely prefer Shutterton Creek or the Wreck, I scanned from Cockwood crossing for about half an hour, before [despite double gloves and hats] the cold got too much. No Smew of course, but there was the female Goosander that often pops down in winter, the resident Slavvie with a friend, Little and GC Grebes, plus to my surprise 2 Black-necked Grebe, down by the lowest line of boats [trawlers and that cockle barge]. I'll have to double-check my records, but I don't think I've seen Black-neckeds on the Exe before - the sea's been pretty rough, with all the easterlies, so maybe they've moved up from Torbay?

Walking up to Cockwood Harbour [trying to get some feeling back into my feet!] I was delighted to discover it full of waders! The corner bench had some shelter from the wind, so I plonked down there and enjoyed cripplingly good views of Blackwit, Dunlin, Redshank, Greenshank, and best of all... an Avocet! You could not only see the birds' every detail, but also see not only how they fed [pretty well, it seemed], but what they were getting, hear their calls, both standard contacts and aggression - as the Blackwits in particular held on to good [and unfrozen!] bits vociferously! Watching a 1w Blackwit working along a crack between two plates of ice, down to about 20', then slipping its way over the ice to the next one.. Wow.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Just a quickie

Bird Wars continue today - with male Blackcaps taking the fight out into the street! One chased the other right up the line of front gardens [which are all of 8 foot deep] to the end of the terrace and away. I think he might mean business...!

In other news, the Backwater had a Smew [albeit briefly]. I'm not jealous. Really. Not a bit.

Oh who am I kidding? I LOVE Smew - they're easily my favourite wildfowl. I used to have a very strict 2 hour birding radius [in an attempt to avoid spending hundreds and hundreds of pounds chasing birds the length and breadth of the country], but I broke it purely to go up to CWP, get extremely muddy, fall over a couple of times [that clay they have up there's very slippery you know!], and see those most adorable of ducks. I don't mean to sound like a teenage girl gushing over Jared Leto, but they're just soooooo cute..........

Ahem.

Well, hopefully by Saturday the huge chunks of ice which have formed on my car will have melted enough for me to go and have a look for her. If not I'll just have to walk down to the shore and stare forlornly out to sea....

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Bird Wars...

Well, maybe that should be 'Fat Wars'... Yesterday it kicked off between the two male Blackcaps over possession of the fat block [f.y.i. its one of the RSPB's finest - the mealworm-y one if I remember aright - I daren't go out and check it, for fear of a Sylvia-style savaging...! ;)] and the battles have continued into today. Blackcap gave Blackcap a good billing, then Blackcap beat Blackcap into a shameful retreat [while the Sparrows all laughed and called him names], later Blackcap seemed to have Blackcap on the edge of submission, before Blackcap pulled a length of 2 by 4 with barbed wire wrapped 'round the end and-
::Pauses::
I got a bit carried away there, I think....
Anyway, there have been frequent skirmishes between two male Blackcaps over the fat block, and by extension the whole garden, and due to the vigorous nature of their interactions, and their identical appearance, its impossible to tell if one is holding on to it consistently, or if ownership is passing back and forth. The female has kept her distance [probably planning to wait for them to exhaust each other, then beat up the winner, like she's done in the last two winters]. In other news, plenty of the usual fare, and the Greenfinch high count is now 11, and they've finally learned that the roofed tray has food - a solid mass of finches in there is quite an interesting sight [and if a passing Sprawk notices, it's going to be messy.....]

Pulling the P.O.V. back out a bit, we at last have snow! Ok, barely 2cm, but that's a lot for here! Not enough to keep me away from work, alas... Today I got to work by the Big Windows for a while, and noticed a group of at least 7 Fieldfare heading NE past the factory at 0849, the resident Grey and Pied Wags were about, [though the colour-ringed male was still to distant to get a certain fix on, the little bugger!], but no sign of Bullfinches among the snow. Ah well, maybe they were a December treat only. The Geebs and Herrings seemed to enjoy the snow - cruising about in the increasing wind - and showing off in front of dark and light backgrounds like they were posing for a field guide!

Speaking of snow, I feel the need to recognise a bird that has shown truly remarkable fortitude and prowess these last weeks, and indeed now months. I write, of course, about what must surely be the World's Hardest Shrike! Not only has it survived frost, ice, and snow, but also Staines - I mean, even the Mipits are tough there.. ;) I went to see it in early November - the furthest I've twitched [I have to add 'so far...' at this point, though it was well outside the Official Twitching Envelope] - and for what had been described as "a brown bird that sits in bushes" it was much more than expected. Yes, it was various shades of brown - though as a Brown Shrike, whaddya expect? ;) - and it did spend a lot of time sitting in various bushes, but oh what a character! I couldn't get over the way it twitched its tail all the time, like an oversized wagtail, even when being mobbed by Mipits [I said they were hard]. A Robin was scolding it from the other side of the bush it was sat in - it turned slightly to look at the Robin, the Robin to its credit kept up the abuse, than the Shrike went through the bush after the Robin. You could almost see the "Oh shit!" expression on the Robin's face before it bolted... Turning things around, a heart-in-the-mouth moment as a female Kestrel decided that the Shrike might make a decent lunch and a worryingly close chase ensued.. Especially worrying as it ended out of sight, and it was only when the Kestrel popped up and landed in a tree to sulk a couple of minutes later [followed after another 10 or so by the Shrike's re-appearance] that we knew she'd missed. All in all a worthwhile trip to see a brown bird sat in a bush.

Oh yes, Ring-necked Parakeet was [after a much longer wait than the Shrike required] another, rather overdue, Lifer. Speaking of them, I can see, or should that be hear, why they're so unpopular London way - but at least they're pretty, and hard to confuse with anything else! I think I'd take them over our hordes of Woodpigs... [And definitely over the Canadas!]

Monday, 4 January 2010

Post-script

4/1/10 Back to work [oh joy] but in the few minutes of daylight left after my return, all 3 Blackcap were in the garden. Little buggers must have been reading my blog.. ;)

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Something about birding

The story so far....

2009; having been challenged to do a Devon Yearlist [well, "Do a Devon Yearlist. Go on, you know you want to!" sounds like a challenge to me, anyway!] I did what vaguely resembled my humble best [allowing for work, twitching Lifers, and not being able to be arsed to go all the way to some suburb of frickin' Plymouth] and ended up with 219 by the Generally Accepted Reckoning [[or 218 by the stricter Lifer Quality Views Only criteria I was using]]. Which is not too shabby. However, it did involve lots of Yeartick twitching, repeat visits in search of recalcitrant Jack Snipe, lack of sleep, and general stress.


Yeah, it was a lot of fun. :D

So, new calender year, new birding ethos - Twitch only Lifers, enjoy what you're doing, and remember, its just fun, [have I said this enough?].
1/1/10 Up and at 'em - down to the Wild Wild West [that'd be cornwall then] in rather overdue [due to yearlist prioritising] search for the wintering Richard's Pipit. Crows-an-Wra [gotta love the name], it says, from layby on A30 by 'mud on road' sign. Ok. After minor detour due to someone seeing some ice, standing on the brakes, hitting someone coming the other way and blocking the road [I think dealing with different road conditions should be a mandatory part of learning to drive, but I'm not getting started on that one! {Yet...}] a gorgeously sunny west cornwall is reached. Two laybys, no mud sign. Ok. West layby first - fields to the north yield something that looks like a small scrawny pale-bellied Song Thrush. Get the big scope out - yes, its a scrawny pale-bellied Song Thrush. East side layby gives views of a large undulating field of maize stubble, and the sound of a call from a certain bird flying away. Yeah, this is the right place! Clear access point over the hedge, but I'm backward, and won't wander onto fields [even round the edge of stubble] without something like an ok from field-owner. [I'm allergic to shotgun pellets up the arse, what can I say?]. Half an hour of twisted patience later, the Richard's duly flies into sight.... and vanishes behind the huge muck heap in the corner. It stuck its head up once [I was expecting it to stick its tongue out too]. Enough to tick, but not enough to really satisfy. Sod it, its only a pipit! Lunch with a nice view at Carn Brea, then a very nice drake Goosander at Drift [plus Assumed Plastic Fantastic no. 1 of the year - subadult blue morph Snow Goose] and an epic Little Grebe vs Stickleback fight as a bonus [the grebe won it on points].

2/1/10 Fernworthy Reservoir - utterly beautiful in ice and frost, though glaciated roads proved 'interesting' on the way. Nice to see the massive 4WDs that clog the roads actually being used for their proper purpose - many I think for the first time! Don't get me wrong, I have no problem at all with people who actually live up on the Moor using them, its the urban ones [who can't drive them properly when they do get to the lanes] that I have issue with. [Another issue for another time]. To the birds! Well, after several trips last year in search of a yeartick, and only getting 'heard-only's, this time I was treated to Crossbills! Other than them, a massive LTT/Goldcrest band, and sparkling ice on the lake were the highlights. Really, the Moor on a cold sunny day is such a treat - the frost was so extensive, it looked in places like the fake spray-on snow they use on film sets, and it served to bring out the colours it lay on. Magical.

3/1/10 Local patch birds - a stroll in the afternoon brought nothing revelatory, and of most note were some good numbers for my quarter of a tennis court back garden; 12 House Sparrow, 10 Greenfinch, 25+ Starling, 4+ Blackbird, 2 Great Tit, 2+ Blue Tit, 2 Dunnock, 3+ Chaffinch, 5+ Woodpig, 9 Herring Gull [mostly flying about the area looking disreputable], 3 Magpie, 3+ Carrion Crow, 2 Jackdaw, and singles of Wren, Coal Tit, Song Thrush, and the first f. Blackcap actually in the back garden. There have been at least 3 Blackcap [2 and 1] in the immediate area, though they've been leery of the garden so far, except singly and briefly. I'm waiting for this to change - for the last two winters a female has made the garden her home, guarding the provided fat block against all and sundry [mean against poor Blue Tits, impressively brave against the massed Sparrow mob], kicking off also the two males who'd previously come to a hard-fought accord over it.



First of all...

I ought to start with saying that the title says quite a lot. I am a birder. I am rather backward in my ways. Birding and my ways thereof are going to feature pretty heavily in this blog - you have been warned, so if you're already going "What... birds?" then you may with to click that red button up the top of your window now...

Still here? Well, there's no accounting for some people. ;)

Perhaps I'd better start with some disclaimers while I'm at it - I am a Devon Birder, I am not The Devon Birder. Or the South Devon Birder, either. I am quite backward, but I am not from the Backwater [home of several blogging birders of far more wit and eloquence than you'll find here, plus pretty pictures! - go check them out. After you've finished reading this of course..!]
Why am I backward? Well, mostly due to what I have and don't have on my desk in front of me. I have a notebook. I don't have a digital camera. Nope, not even in my phone. I can hear the sounds of jaws hitting desks, chairs, and maybe even the odd floor from here. Mandibles re-attached? Good. I do own a camera, an SLR of the 35mm film variety popular in the latter part of the last millennium [Pentax ME Super, if you're into such things]. It's old, rather battered [ok, make that 'very well-used'], and still on its original battery. I have three lenses for it, but almost invariably use the wideangle macro. I take far fewer photos with it than I used to [you'd think they'd reduce the price of developing to encourage people to keep doing it, wouldn't you?], and have learned the expensive way that unless a bird sits very still, very close, with very good light [and how often does that happen?] its not really worth trying photoscoping. Photobinning sometimes works, but the three rules still apply.
That was a long-winded explanation of why there is a, not so much paucity as sheer lack, of pictures on this blog. If I can work the technology [big if - backward here] this might change a bit, but don't hold your breath.

I also have, - perhaps backward is not the best term for it, eccentric might fit better - views on birding. I have become somewhat disillusioned with the birding establishment in the last year - at least in terms of recording practices - and this has led me to re-assess how I treat this lifestyle [and birding is a lifestyle - its more than a hobby, and it certainly isn't a science]. This here shiny new blog is one of the new things I'm adopting. Giving up Yearlisting is another [though it will be interesting to see which one lasts longest - odds are looking pretty even right now]. I'm looking for a more relaxed, laid-back approach to birding. Twitch only Lifers, go birding to enjoy watching birds, not to pick up species [lifers are ok, because they're birds I've never seen before, and you can't see too many, right? Right?]
Oh dear, this listing thing may be terminal.... The point is to return birding to the de-stressor it used to be, instead of the stressor it's become. I want to be tramping over [hopefully not in] freezing Dartmoor bogs because I enjoy it, not because I still haven't seen Jack Snipe this year...
Oh and in case you're wondering, I do like Dartmoor in the winter, on days when its soggy and cold and blowing a hoolie. Especially when you can find a place to sit down out of the freezing blast, have a cup of coffee, and wait to see what comes by. I think that's the essence of birding - sitting down [or lying, or leaning, or even kneeling if you're feeling masochistic] and making yourself inconspicuous, then waiting to see what comes along. Being quite a keen seawatcher, I suppose it comes naturally to me [though that may be getting things the wrong way round] - that is seawatching in a nutshell [just add umbrella ;) ].

Right, that'll do for now. I shall see if I can make this thing post ok, and maybe I'll actually start going on about things that have happened?