09 February, 2011

The Price of All That Fun

Appears to be the bit of a cough I've picked up. Lovely.. Oh well.

When not hacking, clutching my chest like a heart-attack victim, or writing self-pitying drivel, I've seen a couple of noteworthy things. Blackcaps, to be precise. Female Blackcaps, to be more precise. One in the garden meant that for about 4 seconds of mid-air combat there were 3 Blackcaps! Woo. I'm not counting her as a separate bird, as there was a female about 100' down the road a few weeks back. What is number 11 for my Patch this winter is one in the Ilsham Valley, which chacked at me today from a bush in a rich person's garden. I don't normally hear wintering Blackcaps making much noise, so I stayed put and watched her swear at me until she got bored, lowered her little brown crest and pretended she wasn't bovvered by me at all...

I have also failed to re-find the Firecrest but did find a pair of Fulmars at [Classified Location] - not super exciting to most, you can find a fair few of them around, [and seawatching at Berry Head is performed to their accompaniment] but good for my Patch. :D Spring is definitely in the air, with the Sparrows nest-building and Great Tits prospecting for anywhere they can fight the Sparrows out of... Also Violets and Primroses are starting to flower [the latter being very late this year - yes, really - as we usually see the first ones in late December] and I'm expecting the first Daffs within days. [[Not counting variegated garden varieties here {which flower year-round}, only proper ones]] [[Devon isn't Glorious for nothing]]

Now, I'm wondering if I should keep it short or start going on about Seawatching as I've been threatening? The second most acquired taste in birding [beaten only by gull-bashing], what is it that makes allegedly sane people [well, as sane as birders get] tool up in waterproofs and lug their optics plus daftly patterned bumbleshoots and a folding chair of some description to a desolate headland, to stare at the raging sea for maybe 10 hours while tiny birds whizz past at ranges measured in hundreds of metres at best? ::Deep breath:: You will get cold, you will get wet, you might get pneumonia....

Ahem. Maybe that tack's been sailed a few too many times already? How about we go over Monday's fun in different detail?

Getting up too early is part of it, as often the best passage is soon after it gets light. Feet up, I have my walking boots [with thickest socks] waterproof trousers over winter lined trousers, waterproof over t-shirt over longsleeve [thin layers for better insulation] and winter Silly Hat with another in the rucksack to add if needed [[A spare hat is Your Friend]]. Waterproof gloves are standard, with the mitts in reserve case it gets too cold. Rucksack has folding stool, tripod, scope, flask, something to eat, plus assorted odds and ends including two clickers [I bought a second last year, now I think I need a third...]. Bins round the neck and Ginormous Bumbleshoot as walking stick. Getting down is always the worst bit - Hope's Nose is limestone, which when smooth and wet is very much like ice. Only harder. Plus mud, loose rocks, and a gusty gale to blow you off-balance. To get to the seawatching place, you either climb down a vertical face or make a traverse over enough of a drop to spoil your day or circle around and jump over said drop. It's all fun.

Once there and sat down the fun can properly begin. This is where the leveling tripod is so shiny I have to rave about it - just being able to brace the tripod where I want it and level without touching a leg in a few seconds is such luxury... Ahem. This is the point of the exercise, of course, being there and seeing the birds. Such birds they are, too. I don't care what the neon-toothed salesbods say, HD 3D and all that jazz do not in any way compare to real life. Have you ever seen a shearwater fly? Any kind, doesn't matter, they're all a privilege to watch. Have you seen Gannets fishing? Documentaries may have cameras in the water, but it's not the same. Or seen a skua, so full of threat and sheer bad-assery [Watch a skua chase some poor tern or Kittiwake, or a Bonxie scragging Geebs and Gannets - I've seen one grab a Gannet by the wing and throw it into the sea. Look up their sizes and you'll get a hint of how impressive that is. {Don't mess with Bonxies!}]. Tiny bat-like Stormies, trains of auks like high-speed wind up toys, ducks and divers and grebes, the Kittiwakes; proper sea gulls and always so smartly-dressed. Birds you just don't usually see, that live way out and come ashore only at night, sometimes on the other side of the world. Not to forget the sea itself, of course. Or the cetaceans under it, or the vessels on it - will a trawler come by, trailing a line of gulls and who knows what else?

But it's an acquired taste. Sitting there in lashing rain, with no visibility, having your brolly torn from your grasp and triumphantly thrown into the sea by the capricious wind, straining to get onto tiny fleeting birds that spend more time hidden behind waves than in view - it can be distilled frustration. [Especially when large shears are involved. Or Leach's Petrels.] It can also be a huge rush - sat in the eye of the storm as these incredible ocean wanderers go by. The sheer joy I get from the way a Sooty Shear or Sabine's Gull flies goes far beyond that which can be conveyed by words, or even the grin I'm wearing at the memory of them...

You don't have to have a storm, though. You can seawatch at any time, after all. It's not going away. A sunny summer's day might not seem productive, but the thing is you never know. Calm seas can still produce cetaceans, Sunfish and Basking Sharks. Or other things - one time at Prawle with an almost flat calm and bright sun, what comes by but a Stormie! Go figure. And summer evenings mean foraging parties of Manxies. What else? Almost anything could turn up*; Hoopoes, a very lost frigatebird or Pacific alcid? A nearctic vagrant in/off? Stranger things...

[[My lawyers have, er, 'asked' me to point out that it may take many years of watching to see anything other than Herring Gulls and the odd Shag - yes, that's right, if you put in the time you too could see a Fulmar! ;) ]]

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