28 February, 2010

Frustration or Elation

Can you guess?

Well, the weather misbehaved big style - choosing to rain destruction upon europe instead of birds upon us. Tut. Having gotten up veeery early, seen what wasn't doing, and gone back to bed [I have no shame], I eventually decided to wander to the south side of Tor Bay and see what was a' goin' on. Plan was to have a wander around Berry Head - check on the colony, see if anything was happening on the sea, that sort of thing - then head to Broadsands for wintering passerines and more sea checking, with hopefully the assembling gulls containing something interesting.

You're expecting an 'Of Mice and Men' quote now, aren't you?

You're not getting it.

No, not even if you say 'pleeeeaassse'.

They've been doing lots of work up at Berry Head - shiny new visitor centre and cannons and fences and cattle grids and a hide! Ahem. Hide points at the Guille colony - at an angle, so you can't really see all of it. Little narrow windows to make it just that little bit harder for scopes and a door that doesn't shut properly. But there is a big wooden Fulmar, operatic Guillemots, and those funny external shutters should help keep the rain out. I've heard much speculation about how long it'll be before the chavs burn it - I reckon it might last as long as the World Cup Final, but maybe I'm an optimist.

The day proved sunny and dry and the great mass of 'normal' people were out. With their kids and dogs and kites and scooter things. I didn't see a single Chiff of any colour at Broadsands, and Berry was quiet passerine-wise too. It was amazing - no sooner had the kids on bikes gone than the kites started, then they left and the dog-walkers made sure to walk all around every car park... Even as I was leaving, they were still there. Ah well.
The sunshine didn't deter a few Gannets from fishing fairly close inshore, and a little blue trawler by the name of 'Dee-J' [yes, really] acquired several hundred larid fans when she pulled in her nets and headed in towards Brixham. This latter event caused me more annoyance than interest, as I'd previously been playing a strange version of hide and seek with a certain 1w gull.

How do you play hide and seek over open sea? Well, you need some big waves, some other gulls to run interference, and be far enough off to need a scope - not hard when you're talking immature gull ID. This particular individual caught my eye by being very white, and having an unusual flight action - more buoyant and elegant I think is the best way to sum it up. It also had a neat tail bar, dark secondaries, a half-size window, a very white head with streaking in a 'boa', very pale underwings and belly, a nice straight dark bill with a little pink at the base, more on the lower mandible than the upper, dark tertials with pale 'thumb-nails', a grey saddle.. yeah, I was quite interested in this one. First saw it off the seawatching point, played the hide and seek for about 10 minutes before losing it. I moved up to the battery, and re-found the gull with a raft of about 40 resting gulls - it still wouldn't behave and nipped over to a different raft before it finally seemed to settle. I was waiting for it to pose properly, or even better stretch, when the trawler pulled its act. I hung around in the cold at Broadsands waiting for an appearance [ok, hoping is a better term] but the pesky 'Dee-J' stayed outside the harbour and kept a lot of gulls' attention, the high high tide meant the gull roost was well offshore, and I didn't see my possible if not probable again. Without a closer look - and preferably a view of tibia length and some nice diamonds and anchors - I'm not happy about even typing the C-word.

Definitely frustration today.

Edit: In my frustration yesterday, I neglected to mention the Black-necked Grebes [or possibly grebe, if it moved very fast] that showed well, close in on both sides of Churston Point, and the three R-B Mergansers that showed much less well beyond the rough line of G C Grebes and roosting gulls. No divers seen!

27 February, 2010

Shameless copycatting!

Inspired by the indefatigable Mrs. Woolley, I toddled down to Haldon Pier, Torquay, this morning, to see if any Purple Sandpipers had returned after the council's latest botc- er, attempt to repair the sea defences. Only one of the lovely little birds was present, being as adorable as ever. [Also various cracks in the shiny new concrete - though the sparkly granite blocks were very pretty]. Also got a good look at a regular winter visitor to Torquay Harbour - the 2-masted yacht 'Nefertiti', who summers off Jersey and has a lovely sweep to her bows. She usually stays in the middle of the out harbour, but is currently tied up in the inner - making a good peer easily achievable!

Found myself wandering around the lanes near Ipplepen this afternoon. Real proper rolling farmland - fields and woods and little streams, oh it were glorious! I'm not usually a fan of lane-walking; preferring more views and less chance of meeting tractors. Never mind zooming 4x4s [bigger than cars], tarmac [hard on the feet], and the whole 'not being able to see the countryside' thing - oh did I already say that one? These were nice lanes, though. A lack of traffic helped [barring an autoloader laden with mangle-wurzels!], also reasonably see-through hedges. Among good numbers of the usual suspects, Bullfinches and a couple of Red-legged Partridges were the star birds.

Now then, tomorrow tomorrow.......

26 February, 2010

I need to go to a meeting...

I am the Backward Birder, and I am an addict. My addiction is bad for the health, but I just can't stop. Rain or shine [but especially rain] I succumb, pretty much year round [though notably more so June to November]. I know I'm not alone in my addiction, and that compared to some I have it mildly, but I know I need help.

I looked at the weather forecast, saw that low coming up from Biscay, and thought to myself "curve a bit west and come 6 months later please!". Its biting again - I am a seawatchoholic. ;)

I know there may be people reading this who disapprove of my comparing seawatching with other, real addictions, but is freely spending hours in the wind, rain, and lashing sea spray, staring out into the teeth of the storm in the hope that some poor bird flies past really sane? Its not good for your health [never mind the hypothermia, what about your posture? Sat for 10 hours huddled over your scope??], you have to sneak away to exercise it, and you just can't stop.... You prowl in your home / workplace, quietly cursing the weather for coming when you can't be there. When you do see something, the rush keeps you grinning for hours / days or even longer. I've not even gotten to the flypast immature gulls..... [[Ok, maybe a step too far - there insanity does lie.....]]

I know the wind's going the wrong way, but I fear I won't be able to resist when Sunday comes. I was wrong in that first paragraph - I don't need help. I need a shear, or a skua, or - ooh a Puffin would be nice........

23 February, 2010

Pointless Musing

I'm still thinking about that Little Bugger.

It's gotten me into the philosophy of twitching again, which is never a good idea - especially when coupled with a keyboard and the ability to wibble at the world. Or at least, that elite section that reads this here blog [well done] ;)

So, wibble away;
What's the worst part of twitching? Dipping, obviously. It sucks harder than a Dyson. [Other vacuum cleaners are available]. "Mobile and elusive" strikes fear into every twitcher's heart - though not as much as "It was here 5 minutes ago...." The journey out is invariably a prolonged torture; every hindrance hurts, physically, every second you lose unnecessarily could be the difference between a tick and a dip - you've seen it happen from both sides - and the closer you get the worse it feels. "Inconclusive views" - you've seen something, probably it, maybe certainly it, but not well enough to ID yourself*, not enough to tick it. Ouch. "Ringed and released", "Sprawk..." "Just flew off thattaway" Ok you get the idea. For me [and, who knows, maybe some others out there] there is another - "Enough to ID, but not enough to enjoy". The Little Bugger is very much in this category - it gave me just enough to clinch the ID but not a second more. Slightly better but still too similar was the Citrine Wagtail at Marazion last year - and that after 3 dips too! Contrast with the Brown Shrike - which was an utter superstar - and the Collared Fly on Fraggle Rock, who could have really given its admirers a hard time if it had moved over a bit, but instead showed again and again, very close, rain and shine.

I know twitching isn't the same as birding - indeed all listing isn't. Birding is about watching birds for the love of it, and indeed them. Listing is about exercising those hunting instincts we've inherited from hundreds of millions of years of ancestors, and there's nothing wrong with it at all. Quite the opposite, I believe it to be a very healthy activity; you can't ignore what's written in your DNA [and mitochondrial DNA and RNA and prions], and at least this way gets you out in the fresh air. Plus birds are involved.

There in that field, while I saw the bird and can put a Life Tick beside it's name, what I really enjoyed was the sudden flood of Spoonbills - from one to two to three, then two more and another one and yet another, almost as fast as I type this.. And what I loved, really grinningly loved, was that Barn Owl. Its grace and utter quiet determination - the Crow knocked it out of the air, but it just picked itself up and kept going. A ghost in the sunshine.

22 February, 2010

The Waiting Game

Remember that Guinness ad? "He waits - that's what he does. Tick follows tock follows tick follows tock. Ahab says, 'I don't care who you are, here's to your List!' " Or he would have if it had been about birders instead of surfers - and really it ought to have been, after all, how many surfers drink Guinness? Aren't they all about Fosters? [[Other stouts, lagers, and dodgy stereotypes are available]] ;)

So what brought about that particular bout of madness? Well, gentle reader, on Saturday I, in despite of all I could do in regards to lie-ins, apathy, utter lack of news, and general tardiness, went over to cornwall to see if I could dip the Little Bunting that had been found knocking about by the Lynher. I try to avoid Plymouth whenever possible, so I was very pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the trip out went [staying on the A38 might have helped, of course...]. At least until I got to where RBA's little indicator said Sconner Farm was. Now, I suppose I should have known better - their ability to miss with their little squares and triangles [especially on the somerset levels] is famous, after all. The fact I don't have a proper map of the area definitely didn't help - my road atlas shows the roads, but not the names, and the eye in the sky wasn't any help either - but there was a farm with a set-aside bit close to the marker, so that would be it, right? Yeah, yeah....

One encounter with chainsaw-wielding locals later, I found the right spot and was pleasantly surprised again by how much parking there was. I was expecting some tight layby-come passing place, but there is off-road parking for more than two vehicles - treat! Wandering down the stubble field [kudos to the farmer for the access] I saw a rather worrying sight - a group of birders looking in all directions.... Oh dear. Little Bunting had been seen by one guy in the morning, for maybe 30 seconds. The set-aside was very nice - pretty much perfect habbo with the hedge to pop up into and preen - but evidently the birds disagreed. Still, there was a large chunk of Lynher to look at while we waited - Spoonbills anyone? Oh, maybe not with the tide low and going down.

Time passed. Quite a lot of it. People gave up, others arrived, and gave up. The field was repeatedly interrogated. Theories were exchanged - maybe its coming here as a pre-roost thing? - maybe its tidal, the birds could be out on the salt marsh? - maybe the thing's just gone somewhere else? Pretty much the usual, in other words. There were 3 Dunnock messing about in the bit of hedge, but that was it. The last chap was leaving when just before 2-30 a bird appeared in the hedge that wasn't a Dunnock - bins showed a bunting sp. but it'd gone before I could get the scope on it. I jogged up to catch the guy, and told him how thin the hope was, but he thought it was enough to give it a bit more. Time passed very slowly with nothing but Dunnock, he moved a bit further north to see more of the hedge... and of course then a bunting popped up on top of the hedge - this time I got the scope on it and bingo! Very very short bingo though - in view for all of 10 seconds total - I didn't even have time to move my hand to zoom in... Frantic hand-gestures proved pointless - the Little Bugger [as I think it deserves to be re-named] had gone back over the hedge and didn't reappear while I was there. Terribly frustrating - and worse, several other birders arrived within 10 minutes of my sighting.

I'm having very mixed feelings about this - yes I saw it, 10 seconds view for almost 4 hours standing - but nobody else got it and that feels almost as bad to me as if I'd dipped it. I was there thinking "Show. Show. Show. It's not fair, you little git". To make matters worse, one, then two Reed Buntings decided to strike poses for us - one had rufous crown sides and very pale ear coverts and at first, half-hidden in the hedge, got us quite excited. A 1w Spoonbill appeared feeding in the channel coming out of Sconner Lake [the saltmarsh of which is where all the finches and buntings evidently were] - I'd never actually seen one feed before - lots asleep, even one in-off, would you believe - but never until now feeding. Yay.

For the unluckiest birder in cornwall and myself, there was a last reward - we having stuck it out past 5-00 were treated to a sudden flood of Spoonbills, a final total of 7, including 2 b/p adults, and an imm. with a numbered ring - left leg above the tarsal joint, it posed so the letters and numbers were obscured [the first was probably 'S' and the last '7' or '9' is the best I can do]. Then, as icing - a Barn Owl started hunting on the far side of the Lynher - after being mobbed by a Carrion Crow, that is.

Yesterday - very briefly. Yarner Wood - again no LSW, I'm beginning to think they've all been abducted by aliens or something... Tits, Nuthatches, and Treeecreeepers put on a very nice performance though. The feeders were again empty - is this deliberate policy? I happened to have a few sunflower hearts about my person, [just in case the Little Bugger'd needed tempting - ahem] and they were very gratefully received.

14 February, 2010

Thick and Thin

Sums up this weekend's birding activities quite well!

Working backwards in time -

I suppose a winter's day wandering about the high[ish] Moor is never really likely to provide much in the way of birding spectacle. There is always the nagging thought that today might be one of those really special ones though... When you get treated to a Merlin, Hen Harrier, or Short-eared Owl. There is the possibility that every wet bit you traverse might conceal a Snipe, maybe even a Jack. Reality, of course, has other ideas, and 9 times out of 10 [or fewer] you get half a dozen species if you're lucky and being checked over by a Raven is the best bit. And that's just it making sure you're not about to die. You know, just in case...

Today the sun came out, the wind was pretty gentle [though sharp of tooth], and a Buzzard flew low east over the ridge north of Roos Tor, about 200m in front of us. A couple of warships were exercising in the haze off Plymouth Sound, and no less than 5 parascenders got airborne off the northwest slope of Cox Tor. We were duly impressed.

Saturday was a more overcast day, with a two-hat wind and the odd flurry of snow drizzle in the air. I spent 7 merry hours mooching about the back ways of Fernworthy - the idea was to have a look at the forested valleys south of the reservoir and hopefully also see a few Crossbills, Siskin, Bullfinches, and Redpoll. I'm sure I'm not the only one who, when going there, pretty much stays by the water - there's a good circuit to walk, lots of interesting habitat, a hide to sit in, and you're likely to see everything you're after. Wandering about the plantation means lots and lots and lots of tall dark trees, tracks that make your feet ache, interspersed with navigating the seas of mud and 3' deep furrows the tree-cutting machine makes. All that for extra Coal Tits and Goldcrests.

This is not entirely accurate, naturally. The areas of clearfell have on occasion attracted a certain Great Grey Shrike, there are sites of archaeological interest [ok, if you're not into circles of rocks, maybe 'sites of archaeological disinterest' might be more accurate..], Goldcrests are adorable... I'm straining for a fourth point.... Anyway, I've been around the northern bit before, but not the southern, and this has quietly bugged me for a while. The ground was pretty well frozen, which was a good thing, as wow there are some serious muddy bits up there! Wow also for the Crossbills, who put on a virtuoso performance :D I've seen a few in my time, heard quite a few more, seen the odd big group from a distance, but never had the privilege to see and hear a good sized flock up close. It started with 5 right by the perimeter road, including 2 gloriously resplendent males, and built up to a group of 25; flying right overhead - calling like a mass of sleigh bells - and descending on a couple of larches and feeding for a good 5 minutes, close and casual as you like..... I'm still grinning thinking about them now.

Redpoll were less obliging - a few flypasts and a single flyover calling were all they offered. Bullfinches - even less so, a group exited from the stream near the hide as I was arriving and all I got was their calls. The Siskin behaved better, one male even put on some subsong for me [ok, not for me, but I appreciated it more than his audience, as all he got was another male chasing him!] and a good dozen showed well feeding [also in larch]. On the hairier front, I was lucky enough to see a couple of Foxes - the twisty track meant I got to within 50' or so of them messing about in the ditch with something dark and tough [I have no idea what, exactly, and don't really want to speculate..]. I also met a group of Sika Deer right on the Moor edge - I was cutting from one moorgate to another, they saw me first and the nearest hind barked loudly enough to make me jump! I looked up [typical - watching my footing at the crucial moment!] and saw three of them, mouths full of grass, staring at me indignantly! A couple more barks failed to make me run away, and so the deer vanished into the trees. I think I'm saying wow too much.

It was a good day.

11 February, 2010


There's not been a huge amount happening, really. Work continues [though the clock's running out there], the garden situation is more or less as-was. Well, that's not entirely true. Pair of Pied Wags dropped in briefly - irregular visitors to the garden, usually to be seen in the street. What is it with Pied Wags and tarmac? Not that I'm in any way complaining - the wonderful way they scuttle along, legs whirring underneath them, their perpetual motion tails, and their cheery "Chissick!".

The weekend is coming, and maybe I'll get my arse into gear and do something interesting.


Look at that. I'm a bloody weekend birder! Oh the shame................

07 February, 2010

The Rules of Birder Listing

After a clamour of demand, reaching the heights of non-existence, I bow to the will of the people and here give the rules of birder listing.....

To tick a birder, you must fulfill certain criteria;

Firstly, in order for there to be an element of challenge, you must see the birder before he/she sees you.

Secondly, you must be able to identify the birder - though looking them up in a book after is allowable!

Thirdly, they must be birding when spotted; you can't ambush them on their way to the shops.

Fourth, you cannot be birding with them, or be about to go birding with them - it must be a genuine encounter in the field. This includes hides and seawatching - when you arrive at a site, all those there cannot be ticked. If, however, you can see another site, any birders there who have not seen you may be ticked.

In order to verify who saw who first, time indexed photographic evidence may be required.

Finally, the use of face paint, ghillie suits, suspicious false moustaches, and masks in the likeness of former political figures, in order to avoid being ticked is considered unsporting behaviour.

In other news, the Blackstart at Dawlish Warren was being very elusive today - evidently its tired of posing on the grass, and now prefers to be seen diving into big piles of brambles... The wader display was very good for such a low tide, and after a mere 2 hours or so of scanning, I can confirm that yes, there were 4 Great Northerns in the estuary. The Long-tailed Duck was, as I learn, over the Exmouth side again [to the frustration of the large visiting RSPB group], but Mrs. Surf Scoter proved more obliging for them. Die Hard Award went to a truly indefatigable Eel. Having been caught by a Shag, it successfully fought off repeated attempts to swallow it, only to be grabbed by another Shag, then 4 different 1w Herring Gulls, all of whom did their level best to get the poor eel down their necks. Eventually, after being flown around, dropped from a great height, used as a tug o' war rope, dropped some more, and 3/4 swallowed at least three times, it finally got away!

05 February, 2010

Knew I'd forgotten something...

Apologies for the unconscionable delay in posting - I took a long weekend to do some birding, there was the usual necessity of non-birding 'real life' stuff, not to mention the work thing... and the blog kinda slipped.

Oh well. Here now and oh look at the time I'm going to have to be quick. [Well, one day I'll manage it!] Firstly it seems I missed young Master Ray by mere minutes on Saturday last at Yarner - spending a lot more time there than him I did see more [except for Marsh Tits, which were pretty much the same], though not a sniff of LSW; I've no idea where they were hiding! The day after I ticked Mark Darlaston at Beesands [[Didn't you know, Birder Spotting is the latest thing! ;) ]] though only 2 Scaup were visible from the hide. Consolation prize was a male GSW drumming on one of the dead trees opposite - first time I'd actually seen one do it! On the sea off Hallsands were the usual plethora of Shags, a Black-throated Diver, and a raft of 1 female Red-breasted Merganser and exactly 40 Common Fruitbashers. Yes, you read that right. :D [[Its a nickname I learned on Birdforum today, and I have to say I love it. If you don't get it, look at the latin]]

After the Moor's edge and the Coast Path, it was time for a trip further afield. Monday saw me head over to cornwall - morning on Bodmin; Plumage Ticking drake Lesser Scaup [[A practice I started with Long-tailed Duck, seeing as it has 5 different ones!]]. The Lesser Scaup had moved to Colliford due to a slight case of ice on Dozmary, and so proved more of a challenge than I'd expected, but fortunately several cornish birders were also after it, and we relocated it reasonably quickly. In the afternoon it was to The Rumps, to hopefully get some nice views of Corn Buntings and see if anything was doing on the sea in the brisk NW wind. Auks [but no Puffins..], Fulmars, Gannets, and a 1w Kittiwake at sea were pretty uninspiring - to the extent I tried to pick out people on Hartland Point.. On land the Corn Buntings proved frustratingly mobile - find one, scope on, zoom in, focus, ah-gone! The wind probably didn't help, the female Merlin that came within a hair's breadth of grabbing one definitely didn't.... Swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts... Good days all, though there seem to be ever-increasing numbers of people who think the National Speed Limit for a road without a central reservation is 35[[Hmm, maybe time for those Ancient Devonian swear-words?]]. Also, while I'm moaning, its been very muddy all around the coast - the seemingly universal practice of letting cattle onto the paths doesn't help this in any way whatsoever...

In the garden, we now have 2 Blackbirds. Wow! [Where were they? Where are the others?] Song Thrush still very evident, 3 Blackcaps with Mr. Blackcap still zealously guarding his fatblock.. Couple of Long-tails have been in and out [very quickly out with that Blackcap on guard] - they seem to have suffered; last few winters you could expect at least 8, often with one or more Goldcrests. The pair of Collared Doves rematerialised from whatever parallel dimension they spend most of their time in on Tuesday. Other highest counts - House Sparrow 10, Greenfinch 5, Chaffinch 3, Dunnock 2, Wren 1, Robin 1, Great Tit 2, Blue Tit 2, Carrion Crow 5 [including one with white-centred remiges], Magpie 3, Herring Gull 8, Woodpigeon 5.

Well, that was a brief, concise, quickly-typed post. Or not. Better luck next time?