Saturday, 31 October 2009

A detour...

St Levan, 1821

We came off the Scillies on Thursday morning and had a quick go at Nanquidno. This produced a Richard's Pipit found by DB which called quite a lot and then plonked into a field and wasn't seen again, and later a reasonably showy Yellow-browed Warbler near Nanjulian Mill. True to form, the caring and thoughtful dog-owners of Cornwall had left a gift on the path, and so whilst I was attempting to nab a photo of the warbler I became aware of a rather nasty, shitty kind of smell. Scum. When you think of Cornwall and the Cornish, the vision you likely conjure up is one of a rolling green landscape, populated by pleasant country-folk. Warm, friendly, welcoming, bucolic. Unsophisticated perhaps, but kind and well-meaning. The kind of people who enjoy country fayres, ale, and dancing around the May Pole. Let me tell you, this is a myth. The driver of Constable's Hay Wain, though you can't see it in the painting, is in fact shouting obscenities at the lady in the boat. The chap in the back is chucking stones at the dog (which has just laid a turd - note nobody in the scene makes any attempt to clean it up). And the lady on the bank is drowning a kitten. They are three of the most objectionable and foul people you are ever likely to meet, and yet the painting comes across as idyllic. Why Constable became famous is a mystery. Many people believe it depicts a scene in Suffolk. Wrong, it's actually St Levan. And nothing has changed in the past 188 years. An old sour-puss still resides there, near the Church, and patrols the "car park" where the fee is £2 per car to park in a field for a few minutes. We met her a few hours before we flew to Scilly, as a Wryneck had been reported from the churchyard. "And how many cars 'ave you lot got?" was her friendly greeting, before striding past us and up the hill. Presumably she was off to take her dog for a walk down Nanquidno. Welcome to Cornwall.

Where was I? Ah yes, whilst cleaning my boot off, the Yellow-browed perched up, and then zoomed off down the hedgeline. I was so distracted I failed miserably to get any shots of it at all, and so we left. We had superb pasties from McFadden's in St Just, but one quality butchers shop cannot make up for the wrongdoings of an entire people. Later on, at Church Cove on the Lizard (the current Green/ish Warbler site), a local birder all but told us to Fuck Off. Nice. Londoners may get a bad rap, but let me tell you, when (or more likely if) anyone comes to visit my patch, or I encounter a visitor to one of the other local sites I bird, they'd get a stack load of useful info and help from me, and likewise from everyone else I know. As far as I can tell, the Cornish would ideally like you to drive to the Devon border, throw all your money in a westerly direction, and then turn around again and sod off back to wherever you came from. I am not impressed. No doubt there are some nice ones, but I'm increasingly irascible, and in a tarring kind of mood. They are, to a man, miserable bastards.

Anyway, to the detour. Bradders and I had thankfully left Cornwall and had arrived in Devon where we called a halt to birding proceedings. I like Devon, and in particular I like the Oxenham Arms in South Zeal. Back at the soul-less Travelodge near Okehampton, content, full of steak and beer (and probably still some pasty), I was tucked up in bed thinking warm thoughts about returning to the bosom of my family the following afternoon, when the pager made the noise I had been dreading all day. The MEGA alert noise. Like the horrible screech of a harpy. "Check the pager! Check the pager!" came DB's excited shout from bathroom. I did, hoping beyond hope it was something he had seen before, and was on St Kilda. No such luck. South Shields, Tyneside, and an Eastern Crowed Warbler, a first for Britain. Nooooooooo!

Attempting to persuade Bradders that we should just go home would have been about as likely to succeed as persuading a Cornish dog-owner to carry a selection of small plastic bags around, so I didn't fight it. Although the mere thought of twitching the Northeast from the Southwest filled me with horror, the alarm was duly set for 4:45am. We were in the car by 5, and only six and a bit bottom-numbing hours later we were there!

The bird showed well, and I suppose it was pretty exciting being in on a first for Britain, but I actually wanted to be at home. I wonder if Mrs L will read this? Hope so. Anyhow, there were a lot of people there, and a festive atmosphere prevailed, despite the fact that many of those present had severe colds and coughs, or had suffered various debilitating accidents the previous evening. But we all saw it, and a little beauty it was too. Writing this, over a week later, I'm really glad I went and that I saw it, but at the time, twitching South Shields from west of Exeter seemed like lunacy - 700 miles and thirteen hours in the car for a small stripey bird? Nah, no thanks! Still, on the list as they say, and I may yet drop the charges of unlawful imprisonment.

No I didn't get a picture of it

Friday, 30 October 2009

The thin end of the wedge

A top drawer story from the BBC that I can entirely empathise with. A schoolboy has been made redundant from his Paper Round. His payoff was £6.93. Hopefully he'll start a blog.

The internet is full of all sorts of interesting things that can waste immense amounts of your time. Almost all of it is useless. But once in a while you come across something that is genuinely funny, like the story above. Much as I feel sorry for Splodge, I must confess that my first reaction was to laugh a lot. The below is quite funny too.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Scilly 2009. OK, I'll settle for an Upland Sand.

The last day. The promising weather front had delivered nothing. Or nothing that had been found anyway. I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do, where to go. One look at the heaving sea convinced me that I was staying on St Mary's, which meant more plodding round the same places I had plodded all week. I hadn't lost the will to live exactly, but I was a little fed up of wandering round and seeing the same things again and again. I decided to concentrate on photography - the week of trekking had shown me where the best opportunities lay. Top choice was Carreg Dhu gardens, where a pair of Blackbirds and a Song Thrush were so tame they would feed from your hand, and the Dunnocks would hop around and peck up the crumbs.

Got up there pretty quickly after photographing a funny Wren with white wings in the oak grove on the way, as well as a Spotted Flycatcher. I had the whole place to myself for almost two hours, and was conveniently close to Longstones if famine set in. I got out the trusty white and set to work. It wasn't long before the birds had appeared and I had a great time - took way too many, but that is the magic if digital - they cost nothing. A lot of the time I was forced to back away, particularly with the Song Thrush, who was amazingly forthright in demanding bread.

"I want bread, and I want it NOW!"

Heavy rain put an end to the photography session, so I retreated to Longstones for coffee and cake. Other members of the gang found me there, no idea how they knew where to look, and we had a bit of an editing session before continuing on our way. Holy Vale the next stop for some apparently showy Firecrests. I can't disagree.

What a little stunner!

And that was basically that. We flew off the next morning just before a Great White Egret arrived, but the islands remained quiet for the rest of the week. I look back on it as a great trip - a proper holiday in good company. OK, so it didn't deliver birds up to its usual standards, but those standards are particularly high. I saw enough semi-scare birds to keep me happy, although when you think it was a week of solid birding, it seems somewhat lean. A beautiful archipelago that I hope to revisit.

I have thus far forgotten to mention two Scilly institutions that I was lucky enough to experience. The first is the Log; the nightly roll-call of birds people have seen. Basically an important man stands with a clipboard and microphone and goes through the systematic list asking for counts from the assembled birders, and then writes them down. People attempt to outdo each other with counts of common birds. Some take it seriously, others less so. I had heard stories of a raucous affair, but it seemed fairly subdued to me, and there were perhaps only 80 people present. This is where I proudly called out my heard-only Yellow-browed from St Martin's, and where the following day somebody else confirmed it from the same location, pleasing me no end. Nobody batted an eyelid for that bird, a long-distance Siberian migrant, but I got a very quizzical glance from Will Wagstaff when I announced my Kingfisher from Lower Moors a couple of days later. He may have written it down, or he may have just done a doodle, not sure.

The second Scillonian rite of passage is the Porthcressa "nightclub" on a Friday night. At 11pm you hand over £3 and are allowed down some narrow stairs. The smell of permanently damp carpet hits you about half way down, and for the first 10 minutes your nose constantly wrankles as the foul air penetrates, but after that you get used to it. Beyond the terrible smell, the first thing you realise is that it is so dark you can barely see. Then you notice that other than the barman, you are the only people present. Nobody else comes down the stairs at all. For at least the first 45 minutes, nothing changes. You are alone, in a dank hole. A cave with speakers. Then in the space of ten minutes the place fills up. A trickle at first, then a deluge, and by five to midnight, the place is heaving. At midnight, the bar closes. I'm not sure they have thought this whole club thing through. A mad scrum for more beer briefly ensues, but it is all over, and the shutters come down. So instead people start dancing. People like Monkey....

Scilly 2009. I hate Hooded Warblers.

The next day started off relatively calm, and the morning was spent consuming cake. Probably. To tell you the truth I don't remember, by this stage of the holiday the days had begun to blur into one. I can tell you that we didn't see very many birds, but I had stopped caring. Wandering round in the sunshine, pottering from Firecrest to showy Firecrest, interspersed with a beer and a wedge of cake is no bad thing. I could safely get used to it I imagine.

By the afternoon there was a buzz of excitement in the camp. The wind had begun to blow. REALLY blow. And the front that was causing this was apparently a fast westerly one, originating in America a couple of days previously, and then veering sharply north. We were going to catch the easternmost edge of it. Promise hung heavy in the air. An attempt at sea-watching produced 4 Bonxies in about an hour, not quite up to Porthgwarra standards. There were stacks of GBBs though, many Gannets, and a close Basking Shark. We spent the evening cleaning our optics and eating. Or more accurately, Les cleaned everyone's bins with assiduous care whilst we stuffed our faces with Stir-fry.

The following morning dawned bright and clear. A huge rainstorm had passed through overnight, and the place was sodden. As always we started on Peninnis, which seemed to have even more thrushes than usual, though sadly nothing small and Veery-like. In the Churchyard a Yellow-browed Warbler proved elusive, and a Little Bunting was on view just around the bay for about two minutes and two observers. This is Sam's number one bogey bird after a lifetime of birding, and he missed it by thirty seconds. The entire birding population of St Mary's converged, but it wasn't seen again. I couldn't be bothered to wait around, even though I really want to see one of these well, so continued on and up to the airfield. Got a brief view of the back of a Richard's Pipit disappearing into the distance, presumably the same bird as a couple of days ago, and then a high "pseeee" had Bradders and a few others shouting "Red-throated Pipit!". Necks were craned, all eyes skywards, but nobody even saw it. A soft tick, but DB had ticked it on heard only a few days previously, so I was forced to as well - that time I had had my face in a pastie and so had never even heard it go over. Got it this time though, very distinctive. I'd recognise it if I heard it again.....

We carried on around, H found a couple of Whinchats in a flower field, and after another gargantuan lunch at Longstones, he, Sam & I twitched a really smart Red-breasted Flycatcher on the east coast near Carn Vean. Once again we were not alone... The CB then reported a funny Warbler on St Martins, likely a Booted. Given that the overnight storm had thus far failed to produce the goods, this generated considerable interest and many people went down the the quay to be ready for the moment when a photographer returned from St Martin's with the shots.

Chiffchaff. We retired to the Mermaid.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Scilly 2009. Catharus, whatever.

Day four and a new island. St Martin's, home of about 20 million fields each about the size of a tennis court, separated by thick pittosporum hedges - a hopelessly inefficient system, which is why most seem to be filled with weeds, but by golly it's good for thrushes. Our primary mission was of course to find a stack load of rare birds, but we inevitably wound up at Little Arthur's Farm where a Little Bunting and a Radde's Warbler had been seen in the past few days. The boat dropped us off at the farthest point from the birds, but the walk was pleasant enough. In fact there were so many distractions along the way that the walk took me about an hour an a half. The army of hopeful Little Bunting twitchers stormed away off the jetty, and before long I was totally alone, stuffing blackberries into my mouth at the rate of about one every five yards. I was also carrying the camera, so I felt I had to use it. No Sparrow or Song Thrush was safe.

I eventually made it to the twitch, and was surprised to find that about half of the eager twitchers from the boat were missing. They never did turn up - they're probably still in a field somewhere. Stood around for a bit looking at an empty and badly-maintained tennis court, and was about to pack it in when a Yellow-browed Warbler called behind me somewhere. "Tsuee-eep!" This is one of those birding moments that happens to me very infrequently, and therefore merits full coverage (and bragging) here. Of a line of perhaps fifteen birders, only me and a bloke called Steve Arlow (he of terrible record shots...) turned round. I looked at him, and said "Yellow-browed?". He agreed. Now I'm pretty crap, and make no bones about it, but this is rubbish. If you're birding somewhere like Scilly in autumn, or in fact anywere vaguely coastal, you need to know this call. Hell, I bird Wanstead, which has never had one, and probably never will, and even I know it. Needless to say, it never called again, and we never saw it, but it was one, and I was able to proudly announce it at THE LOG, more of which later.

Shortly after this I gave up on the bunting, and went off looking for photographic opportunities. The most obvious seemed to be the Rock Pipits on the beach whilst I waited for the boat. Things started badly when a couple of birders walked straight past me and flushed my target bird within about ten minutes. They plonked themselves on the beach a few yards away, still not having noticed my prostrate form on the sand nearby, and started reading books. Nice. I heaved myself upright and tried another section of the beach. The pipits were actively feeding on the tide-line seaweed, so I kept low, positioned myself at a reasonable distance, and waited. Within a quarter of an hour, one pipit was feeding within about fifteen feet. It might have come closer, but a doddery old couple then walked straight towards my lense, and straight at the pipit, which understandably flew away. I may have made a gesture.... To be clear, I was not hiding underneath camoflague netting. I was not buried up to my shoulders in sand with only the camera poking out. I was sat in full view of everyone and everything, very obviously pointing a camera at a very obvious bird in front of me. And yet they made a beeline for me, and then expressed sorrow and surprise at having flushed the bird. Un-fucking-believable. Photographers generally get a pretty bad press, and sometimes for good reason. I am not a photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but in this instance I had applied fieldcraft and patience, only to have some ignorant/blind/give a shit couple totally destroy the opportunity I had created, and I was totally in the right. The old fool was lucky not to get a Gitzo in the face, I was really really pissed off. This was the first time all week I had made the time to properly apply myself, and a promising situation had been blown for no reason other than stupidity. Soon after that the boat came and so halfway back I threw the old git overboard.

Back on St Mary's a Cattle Egret had arrived and was giving people the run-around. Once again eager twitchers zoomed off to Porthellick. Less eager twitchers like myself, Howard and Bradders meandered over there, but it flew off before we arrived. Hmmm, what to do? The bird seemed very unsettled, indeed some birders decided to just wait at a spot with decent all-round viewing and wait for it to fly over again, a strategy which soon met with success. We climbed a hill with much the same idea, but news of a probable Richard's Pipit had us scurrying over to the airfield, mainly in case it was not a Richard's Pipit. En route we encountered the phenomenon that is Dick Filby. RBA guru, CB demi-god, and all-round enthusiastic information hub. He strode along whilst we jogged behind, and in no time at all we found ourselves near the windsock looking at an unmistakable Richard's Pipit. Bugger. At least the Cattle Egret was decent enough to do a flyby over Holy Vale/Upper Moors, so we did in fact get both birds and thus rescued a fairly poor day on the scarcity front.

In this photo H is asleep. Again. Sitting to his right is Bradders Snr, I did have a photo after all. To his right, facing left and wearing a cap, is a guy that must be stalking me, as I see him everywhere, and he knows my name, whereas rather insensitively I don't know who he is. Two further to the right, also wearing a cap, is Steve Arlow, carrying the lense I would like. Funnily enough he would like my lense, perhaps I should offer to swap?

Scilly 2009. Enough Empidonax already!

We stayed on St Mary's again, the lure of Longstones was too strong. We actually worked the island pretty hard. I cannot remember where we went, but we had a good poke around in any number of promising looking areas. And we found......? Moving swiftly on, it may have been today when another Moth hit my pager, this time a Blair's Mocha Moth. Conveniently this was located at Longstones. Apparently there have been fewer than 30 records of this rare immigrant. I just took this from a random website, so it may be utter rubbish. Can't say I was blown away, it was small and browny like most moths, but it showed very well in a plastic tube. The extremely nice proprietor also showed us a Kent Dark Arches, notable only because it was October, but best of all, he had a Death's Head Hawkmoth in a margarine tub. The fact it had been dead for several years did not detract in any way from its impressiveness. Now that is a moth - unless my eyes deceived me, it was ever so slightly larger than the plane we flew over in, although not quite as scary.

The cake showed well once again, and once we had recovered, we continued our bird-finding quest. We had our fair share of Black Redstarts, a pleasingly common bird on the islands, as well as several more Firecrests, but that was all we could muster. Dragging our aching bodies back to Hugh Town later in the afternoon, we shamefully twitched a Rosefinch, along with 25,000 other people. It was beginning to get silly. Nobody could find any scarce birds, let alone the mega yank passerine.

We also twitched a Stick Insect in the Old Town Churchyard. Earlier in the day this insect had been booted from twig to twig by an immense crowd, with photographers approaching to within mere inches, but with darkness fast approaching and a showy Rosefinch just up the road, we had it to ourselves. In the absence of birds, it was pretty cool. It was a green one, distinguishing it from the other sort, which are known as brown ones. We never found a brown one, one for next time perhaps.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Scilly 2009. Will someone please remove all these Nighthawks!


The prospect of a Lapland Bunting that would run up your trouser leg was too exciting to resist, so on day three we took the boat over to Tresco. Being somewhat interested in sub-tropical plants, this had always been somewhere I had wanted to visit, and soon I was spouting latin at various things. Weak and feeble plants that I have in pots at home are trees on Tresco. Look at this Leucodendrum argenteum!!

My plant resembles the lowermost branch at the bottom left, just above the shadow. It is three years old, and is pathetic in the extreme. I read somewhere that it can only tolerate rain-water, so for this one plant I dutifully trot out to the water butts for its own special watering can. I cannot say it has repaid my efforts very much.

Well, what can I say about Tresco? Stunning. There are agaves everywhere that dwarf human beings, with lethal terminal spikes. Mostly these are americana or americana variegata, but I fancy there was the odd ferox in there as well. Most amazing of all, they are able to grow Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria excelsa - never let it be said you don't learn anything on here, just don't expect it to be about birds).

By about midday the collective Ring Ouzel count was up to 4, and the team was getting hungry. We chanced upon a low-rent establishment called the Island Hotel and decided to dignify it with our presence for a short while. In turn we were digified with some ultra-budget sandwiches.... Once again it was shirt sleeves, and the delicious sandwiches were helped down by a pint of beer. Whilst casually soaking in the scenery and chatting to an Essex birder who had unfortunately become trapped at the hotel, a couple of birds landed on a large rocky outcrop to the left of my teak armchair. "Might they be Ring Ouzels?" I said, annoyed at having to put my beer down and source binoculars. They might indeed! This is the life! I contemplated another sandwich, but decided I liked all three of my children and could not sell any of them.

We thrashed Tresco to within an inch of its life

A short snooze later and we were back on the road and over to Cromwell's Castle where the Lapland was said to have been seen. When I trod on it as I was plodding along the path, I realised that perhaps my choice of a light-weight wide-angle zoom for the day had been a good one after all. We had seen a line of birders up the slope a bit, scoping something, and had assumed they were on the bunting, so I was quite surprised when it flew from beneath my Brasher. Beckoning to Bradders, he couldn't understand why I was pointing at the ground in front of me. I moved my foot and all became clear.

mobile and elusive

We enjoyed cracking views of this gem of a bird as it fed around our feet. I borrowed (and then ran away with) Bradders' long lense, but I actually prefer this photo from a story-telling point of view, and in years to come, a bit like the Steppe Shrike, it will be memorable for all the right reasons.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Scilly 2009. Getting bored of Parulas now.

Six of us arrived on St Mary's at about 2:30pm on Thursday, following the advance party of four who had flown on in the morning. By 3:30 we were getting some great views of a showy Wryneck. By 4:30 we had bagged the Black-and-White Warbler, and Parula fell shortly thereafter. Err, where was I? Oh yes, that's right, we had a meander around Peninnis looking for a Rosefinch, couldn't find it, and went to the pub.

This showed very well. My photos were still rubbish.

Scilly has many nice pubs. We tried a couple. This is actually true, we probably only went in two all week. Mainly this is because The Mermaid had Doom Bar on tap, which we all quite liked, so we kept going back to see if they had any more. There is also the small matter of Tea Rooms. Again, these were generally superb. Longstones Heritage Centre was generally the luncheon stop of choice. The cake here is awesome, and much as I liked the Lemon Drizzle, the Victoria Sponge won my stomach over. After one particularly hard slog in the rain for no cigars, I started with coffee and cake, and later had a Ploughmans. I had anticipated losing a few pounds running from mega to mega, but on my return there appears to have been a slight gain....

Despite this reversal, we actually walked miles. Just not very briskly I suppose. On our second day we walked through Holy Vale about 35 times, or at least it felt like it. This being my first time on the Islands, I attempted to carry far too much clobber to start with. Scope, tripod, bins, camera, absurd lense, extra lenses, coverters, spare batteries, water, Double Deckers etc. Gradually I whittled this down to the bare essentials, and then realised that I really wanted the camera after all, and piled it all back on again. I never found a happy medium. I think a slightly less ridiculous camera lense might be on the cards for any future visit, but then again, when the opportunity arises, the lumping is worth it, as my Wryneck shot so sweetly demonstrates. And anyway, despite the massive cake intake, you get fitter as the week progresses, so are able to carry more without it hurting as much.


We stayed on St Mary's for our second day as well, and charged around the Island exploring different areas. Highlight of the day was a brilliant Radde's Warbler that we nearly didn't go for. There were so few rare birds on the Islands that if something semi-rare-but-not-that-good-really turned up, it immediately drew a crowd of 150+. Whilst I didn't see any squabbles, I wasn't really up for the mass twitch. We had tried for the Radde's first thing at Carreg Dhu gardens, given it an hour and a half whilst most other birders were chowing down on sausage and bacon, and then given up when the masses arrived. Later on it turned up near Longstones, and as we were nearby, we had wandered along, only to find tons of people trying to peer through small gaps in a hedge into some allotments, only one of whom had actually seen it. We turned on our heels and went for lunch instead. We may have had some cake. Mid-afternoon it turned up again, this time near Holy Vale. We were at Upper Moors, shuffling into the packed hide one at a time to see a Jack Snipe. The hide was packed with two photographers, their two mates, and all their gear. I'm all right Jack, as they say. Thanks guys. We gave up on this as a bad job, and rather than kick stones, decided we would brave the madness. Naturally every birder on the Island seemed to be present, but as it happened we got excellent and prolonged views of this little stunner as it hopped around in the hedge. As we left, two photographers turned up, but we couldn't be bothered going back to Porthellick to stretch out in the vacated hide.

Dinner in The Bishop. Half a roast chicken and chips for £7.50. Somebody carried me back to the digs.

When contemplating plant photography, always remove any distracting elements

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Scilly 2009. Dendroica overload.

+40 miles

I've just got back from the Scillies. Via Newcastle. I had never been to the Scillies before, and anticipation was running high. Day one: Blackpoll Warbler. Day two: American Redstart. Day three: Common Nighthawk. In the event it wasn't quite like that. In fact it wasn't like that at all, but it was nonetheless a brilliant and relaxing holiday, just the tonic. No nappies for one thing.

Let's meet the Team!

And you even get photographs, which may help contextualise some of the previous waffle on this blog. It is important to note the location of most of the photographs. Frankly it speaks volumes.

H, left, and David the Obsessed, right


Show-home Shaun

Dave "gigabyte" Mo, left, and "Hawkeye" Hawkins, right.

Sam S

Sir Les of the Garrison

A Wanstead-based birder

Bradders Snr somehow avoided the camera, but just take Bradders Jnr and you're almost half-way there. Anyway, together this bunch of intrepid birders found almost no rare birds. Best efforts were heard-only Red-throated Pipit and several heard-only Yellow-browed Warblers. The disappointing truth was that there wasn't actually much to find, and not that we were that we mostly in the pub.

Having said that, where else can you see Wryneck, Radde's Warbler, Richard's Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Lapland Bunting, Rosefinch, Cattle Egret, Spoonbill, YB Warbler, and Red-throated Pipit, all basically within walking distance of each other? Not many places I would warrant, but we were there for the big one, the mega-yank, and it didn't happen. To be precise no yanks happened. It was still superb.


Weather: Sunny

Shirt-sleeves: Yes

Birds: Not many

Beverages: Doom Bar

Sustenance: Pasties and Cake. And Doom Bar.

Horrible. We had to spend a week here.


Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Rule #162: Always go see Shrikes

Shikes are cool, that's the main reason. Little badass bandits that look disarmingly cute and fluffy. Supplementary reasons include the fact that there is significant species morphology. Today's Great Grey can be tomorrow's Lesser Grey, or perhaps even Steppe. Or yesterday's Red-backed could become today's Brown, although the reverse is also true. Confusion can reign for days over IDs, especially autumn juveniles, and sometimes the birds are gone before anyone works it out. I'm not claiming any taxonomic expertise whatsoever, as ultimately it doesn't matter - Shrikes are just cool. Which is why I got up at 4:45am and dashed over to St Aines to look at a Red-backe, er I mean Brown Shrike.

Badly misjudged the air temperature. Didn't wear a jumper and had really thin socks on. At one point I considered pouring my coffee into my shoes for the temporary relief it would bring. Frrreeeezing. Things didn't start so well for the seventy or so entirely normal and well-balanced individuals out on the moor at 6:30am, as low-lying mist prevented any birds being seen for a good hour and a half. But by 8, with the crowd having swelled to near enough a hundred, some people to my right claimed it had flown into a bush in front of us. We all rubbished this of course, they had only seen a Stonechat, desperation setting in already, losers. Entirely coincidentally I then picked the silhouette of the bird up in the top of what might have been the same bush....

Views continued to be dreadful for a little while and then all of a sudden the mist vanished and there it was, sat up where all could see it. A few people started talking about P this and P the other, sub-terminal markings and rounded lower-nostril coverts. Irrelevant - it was clearly a Shrike and that is all you need to know in order to gain enjoyment. Funnily enough though it was one I hadn't seen before, so I got a surprise tick. Bonus.

The great and the good were out in force, so I got lots of London Birder ticks as well. So did a lady filming the event for what will no doubt be a thoughtful and balanced documentary about bird watching and those who pursue this magnificent pastime. Vince and Steve B made up for their 2008 failure at Flamborough, and almost all the entire East London contingent managed to make it over during the course of the day. Fly little birdy, fly! Let's hope it stays one more night!

Car-crash TV. PS, employers may wish to click and enlarge to identify ill staff.

In a rare fit of proper birding, I came home and wrote up my notes before I went online to read all about the separation of juv Cristatus from Collurio. Wow. My conclusion?


Monday, 12 October 2009

The Elysian Field

I can officially announce I am done with year-listing. I broke the 300 barrier yesterday afternoon in the Field of Dreams. What a field! Bradders and I were continuing our year-listing quest in Holkam Pines, and had just seen a Red-breasted Flycatcher (may they never get boring) and a Yellow-browed Warbler (bastards), when the news came through of a Richard's Pipit at West Runton. We were headed there anyway so that DB could twitch, filthily, a Barred Warbler. Fine, all good, bit of bonus Anthus action for 299, let's go. Five minutes from the car and the Richard's Pipit went birding and found a Short-toed Lark in the same field. We strode on with renewed energy, could I really get to 300 in the space of one field?

We arrived at the field. Most people were staring at the Elder bushes around the disused pig farm, swearing at the hidden Barred Warbler. Didn't need it, whatever, so headed for the stubble, where we met one of the locals. Whilst casually chatting to him, the Richard's Pipit flew past calling, which was good of it. 299. We learnt from Mr Furze that there was also a Lapland Bunting in the field somewhere. Could DB, now on 297, also get to 300 in just one field? We wandered around the field for a bit, which was overflowing with Skylarks, Linnets and Meadow Pipits, before plonking ourselves in an advantageous corner for both the light and the gradient. About five minutes later a smallish very clean-bellied lark flew around our heads and disappeared again. Hmmm, probably, but need better than that. Luckily DB picked it up again a few minutes later, as had others in the field, and confirmed the ID. Gradually we pinned it down and got good flight views, though never on the deck. And that was it, 300, easy. I can still scarcely believe it. With DB on 298 at this point, I felt it was time to go home, but for some reason he insisted we stay. Oh, ok then, yawn. We wandered over to the farm buildings and almost immediately he jammed in on the Barred Warbler, being the only person to see it for several hours. It showed only to him, and promptly disappeared again for several hours whilst the exasperated waiters had to continue waiting. 299. A short stroll back across the field to where some people had found the Lapland Bunting feeding and he made it to 300 as well, probably within an hour of me doing so. Remarkably this happened on 200 as well - we were in Essex and I beat him to the mark by about 15 minutes with a Whimbrel (which he found), and he added Spoonbill shortly afterwards (which I found). So, all done, and we can both relax on Scilly, although I may not go as I don't need anything any more.

We had a celebratory sandwich back in Sheringham, and whilst contemplating our next move we found the funniest thing ever to be written on an Ice Cream van. It has meaning on so many different levels, we wished Paul had been with us.

A sea-watch was abandoned after about ten minutes, and in a shocking move we decided we would go home and earn BPs with our respective wives. Luckily the pager kicked in and saved us from this ignominy, and instead we drove to Chosely drying barns for a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling. We got there, clapped eyes on it, and then it flew away. Result! Whilst we were looking at this we discovered that another Rosy had flown over a certain field in West Runton. Whilst we were pondering this incredible fact, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper was then found in the same field. Unbelievable! Luckily I took a photograph.

If you bird it, they will come

We didn't go back to West Runton for the Little Bustard that would inevitably be found feeding in the far corner that nobody had checked yet, and opted to go to Titchwell so that I could see a Jack Snipe. It was feeding out in the open about twenty feet in front of the hide, and once Bradders had dealt with the incredibly annoying photographer and the squeaky carrot toy he was using to irritate the Snipe, we got superbly intimate views of this normally skulking bird as it bobbed up and down in the margins. The use of squeaky chew-toys to distract a bird from doing whatever it is doing is a wildlife photography technique I had not previously been aware of. It also seemed to be fairly ineffective, but it would be quite effective for getting yourself thrown out of a hide with more militant patrons than those at Titchwell. And he had a stupid ratty moustache as well. If you're reading this, so sue me, you tit.

The purple sheen on the back is not photographic artifact, it did actually look like this.

After this we went home to face the music. Mrs B sounded quite cross. Mrs L had been well-managed, so a crisis was averted. Naturally she was thrilled I had finally got to 300, and celebrated by doing some sewing in a different room.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The nights are drawing in

Yup, nothing doing today, or indeed the last few days. It rained Monday through Wednesday so I stayed at home, I dipped a Wryneck on Thursday but jammed in on a London Red Kite on the M25 on the way back, and today was spent cleaning sinks and toilets. A pretty dull week all in all, so very much looking forward to a weekend of amazingness. Could I at least get a year tick somewhere?

There was one birding moment today whilst on the school run. At the traffic lights near the Green Man roundabout a Long-tailed Tit flew out of a large tree and over the road. A couple of seconds later another followed it, and then three more. I had just started to tell the kids about Tit flocks and how they hang around together in winter, when about 30 birds, mixed LTT and Blue Tit, all flew out and over together and into a tree on the other side. The children were visibly moved. Then we got hooted at and missed the lights.

So, a sign of winter approaching. Another sign is that I am now feeling cold in the mornings. The urge to stay in my nice, warm and cosy bed is growing by the day. As is the urge to fire up the central heating, which so far I have resisted. I suppose I could, Mrs L would never know. And anyway, she sometimes used to turn it on when she was working from home, and I have small children who chill easily, and there is a desperate shortage of wooly jumpers in this house as I am sure I have alluded to in the past....

I'm sitting here listening to A Prairie Home Companion. Easily one of the best radio programmes out there, and has been going for over 35 years. We discovered it a few years ago, and it is now essential listening. The latest from the Ketchup Advisory Board even had a vague bird theme.

"These are the good times, for the summer birds.
Heading south for winter, in their great bird herds.
Life is flowing, like ketchup on cheese curds."

"Ketchup, for the good times" "Ketchup, Ketchuuuup"

I think you probably have to listen to the show a few time before it becomes meaningful.

Attempt at the keyhole technique in Fife earlier this year. This post is what is known in the trade as a "filler".

Monday, 5 October 2009

Outsmarted by a duck

It's official, I have the mind of a five year old child. As we were driving home from school today, Muffin was as usual waffling on about the Antarctic - we having been watching "Life in the Freezer" recently. There have been many questions. This time he was asking, if there was a Pigeon in the Antarctic, would I go and see it? "No" I replied (for I don't keep an Antarctic list), and slowed down for the lights. Just at that moment I had a bizarre and surreal thought: from a certain perspective of the Globe, the cars in front of me were actually driving vertically downwards, and wasn't it amazing that they didn't all fall off? As I thought this thought, Muffin piped up from the back, "How come you don't feel all upside-down when you go to the Antarctic?" Errrr.

So it is no surprise that I was outsmarted by a duck at the weekend. In search of yet another year-tick, Draycote Water was the scene of this humiliation. A Lesser Scaup had been reported, presumably a returning bird for I saw one here last winter, and this was the target. I left my coffee in the car, in anticipation of a quick and easy tick, and we (DB, naturellement) proceeded to the water's edge to look in the bay where it usually spent its time. Nada. OK, well, there are tufties all the way round, off we go then. And so off we went, grilling all the ducks. When we got to about half-way around, a mere two and a half miles, there was still no sign of it. Hmmmm. OK, so do we retrace our steps, or just carry on round? Some Pied Wags told us to carry on round, and suggested we might get some food at the sailing club. Still no duck when we got round that far. A poor bakewell tart later, and we were on the last leg that would bring us back to the car.

"You've walked two and half miles, seen nothing, and have another two and a half miles to go. Food is THAT way."

As we passed opposite the favoured bay, about half a mile away from a complete circuit, I had a quick scan. Ah. "I may have a candidate...." I mentioned to DB. Though we needed to get closer to be certain, it was indeed the Lesser Scaup, serenely bobbing about in the exactly same place where it had been reported from the last few days, where it had undoubtedly been all morning, and where we had almost certainly walked straight past it some two and a bit hours previously. We eventually got brilliant views of it round the other side, having completed our loop and then some. It even woke up for us, had a preen, sniggered, and then started displaying - and all about five minutes from the car. It is nice to have to work for a bird, as opposed to just bowl up and tick it, but there are limits, and a five mile walk to look through 500 Tufted Ducks and then find the bird basically back where you started surpasses those limits.

On the plus side, we then didn't really have enough time to go looking for Willow Tit, which DB needs for his yearlist and I don't. Instead we spent a couple of hours looking for the recent Aquatic Warbler, couldn't find it, and headed back to London for the Staines Red-necked Grebe. We may have driven down the M40.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

October? What, already?

That went fast didn't it? Wow! I know it has been said that every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time, and so on, but the first three-quarters of this one have gone like lightning. It only seems like a few years ago that we were all celebrating the new Millenium, but in fact it is almost ten years ago. You can mostly chart the years by the bad things that happen, somehow these events remain the ones that are easist to recall; The London Tube bombings were four years ago - I was on the tube that morning, and remember it very well. Ian Huntley killed those two little girls in Soham seven years ago, and the attack on the Twin Towers was eight years ago. As a kid I remember being in the middle of decorating a Christmas Tree when the TV was interrupted by a news-flash of the Lockerbie bombing. That was almost twenty-one years ago. On the way to Somerset last weekend we passed signs for Hungerford. That was twenty-two years ago. Moving away from the nasty stuff, last night I realised that Muffin was almost six. Six?! Where do the years go?! Time seems constantly to accelerate.

As a birder, you remember the significant birds. I remember a quick dash after work to see a Squacco Heron south of the river. As I was looking at the bird, a wild-eyed and sweaty birder ran up to the viewing screen in a suit. He was a bundle of nerves, barely managing to hold it together. "Is it still here???!!! Waaaaaahh!!!" That was two years ago now, and I've not seen one since, so maybe his anxiety was justified. On another evening I remember desperately trying to find Harrow Lodge Park, finally getting there on the cusp of darkness to see a Ferruginous Duck in the gloom. That was two and a half years ago. For some reason I'm acutely aware of vanishing autumns - only another five until I'm 40 for instance. Fifteen until I'm 50... so I have to make each and every one of them count. Which brings me to this September. Where did it go exactly? Sitting here on the 1st of October, following two straight weeks of innocuous weather on the birding front, it feels like September was a dud, and that nothing happened. But that is because I am looking ahead already. In truth the last two days of August and the first week of September were stupendous - Fea's Petrel, Citrine Wagtail, Blue-winged Teal, Arctic Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, Alpine Swift and Pallid Harrier in the space of nine days, followed by Fan-tailed Warbler on the tenth. But since then it has been somewhat slow. And here is the problem - Autumn goes so quickly that if two weeks pass without suitable weather, many birders, myself included, view this as a nothing short of total disaster. Forget the rest of the year and how good it has been, it is always about the next few days. In short, it seems that without a constant stream of scarcities and rarities, birders are never satisfied. They are always looking to the future, to the next tick. Never their minds on where they are, what they are doing. Tick. Heh! List. Heh! A birder craves not these things...

I should be looking back and savouring the incredible moments and birds I have already witnessed this year. I should be reliving in my mind that stunning morning on the Flats which produced all those Whinchats, marvelling at the sheer magic of all those migrant birds somehow being deposited, all together, in Wanstead whilst in the middle of a 4,000 mile journey to sub-saharan Africa. Or if we pretend for a moment that I am not a patch-birder, but instead some kind of lunatic twitcher, that awesome ten-day period at the end of August and beginning of September.

Birds and birding moments, seem, for me at least, to have an incredibly powerful ability to transport me back to particular places and particular times. I can remember very clearly being sat in a hide at Vane Farm in Perthshire many years ago, wondering with Mrs L what that funny bird brown bird with a black and white head was, sat in the reeds in front on of us. We kept going through the field guide and not finding it. It took an age to finally realise there were some buntings at the back of the book. And the first Sedge Warbler I can remember seeing was at Loch Gruinart on Islay in 2003, sat on a fence-post. I took slide after slide of it, even though it was a dot. Recalling this one seemingly innocuous bird helps piece together the entire week we spent on the island, what we did, where we went, and which distilleries we visited. Actually that last one is easy - we went to all of them.

What I need to do is to forget about the next tick (which would be #296), the next rare bird (perhaps #331 for the life list). Savour each day as it comes (cleaned the cooker this afternoon), and enjoy the birds for what they are (saw nothing today).