Thursday, 31 October 2013

St Lucia Hummingbirds

I like Hummingbirds a lot, they're simply brilliant. Much of my time here has been spent watching them, listening to their buzzing as they zip from flower to flower, admiring how they deftly flex their bodies into curves to change direction, up, down, side to side, seemly with little or no effort, skilfully positioning themselves perfectly in line with the entrance. Unlike Tobago, there are no feeders here so you don't see the birds as frequently, but after a few days you get to know which flowers they prefer. Thunbergia is a clear favourite, interesting that it doesn't originate in the Caribbean at all. There are three species here, the Green-throated Carib, the Purple-throated Carib, and the Antillean Crested Hummingbird - this latter is easily the most numerous, at least where we are staying down near the sea. There are a few Green-throateds around, but the Purple-throated seems to prefer higher altitudes which is where we saw them on a rare foray away from the hotel

Purple-throated Carib

I've just checked my list on Bubo, and I've only seen ten species of Hummingbird - clearly this isn't enough. My field guide to the West Indies has two pages of them, and my guide to Trinidad and Tobago had several more. In both instances though, the number of species on the island that mattered was very small. I really need to go to Trinidad and Costa Rica, either of these places would bump up my paltry total considerably. Trinidad for example has around 17 species, of which 13 would be new. Asa Wright is definitely calling, unfortunately not for some time I suspect. I'll get there though, I'll get there.

female Antillean Crested Hummingbird
But you take what you can get, and on the basis that there are none in Wanstead or anywhere else I've been lately, this place is pretty damn wonderful. In addition to simply marvelling at the birds, I've also been doing a bit of stalking. The whole flash set up that I had envisaged is basically useless as you can't be as mobile, and I can't be bothered to stake out one particular flower that a bird might visit once every 30 minutes. With the feeders you could guarantee constant activity, and be ready for it, but here the tactic has been to quickly spot a Hummer coming in, and then getting ready on the group of flowers it is visiting - just like bees they tend to visit most of the flowers on a bush or plant, so if you're quick you can get into position as they start their round. Generally I am far from quick enough, but gradually I am getting some worth keeping, at least until I get home and see them on a real screen.

Green-throated Carib

The Antillean Crested Hummer is the smallest of the three, and the crest is quite extraordinary. Sideways on, as you can see below, it's just a few spiky feathers - a bad hair day. But face on, and if caught in the sun, the true iridescence becomes visible - it is indescribably blinding. I've not yet managed to capture this entirely satisfactorily, but the final two photos below show what I am talking about.


Mr L's latest vacation...

Ok, ok. So I'm actually a bit further away than you might have thought, but I reckon I've still travelled fewer miles than quite a few UK twitchers this week! Yes, travelling again, I may be addicted. This is actually my last trip of 2013, and it has admittedly been a rather good year. I'm currently soaking it up (rum, mainly) on the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, a welcome break from my normal life of fun and frolics at Canary Wharf. Whilst this trip is firmly R&R, relaxation and chilling out, I would be lying if I said there were no birds. Didn't bring a camera though....

Actually I lied. Of course I did, I cannot conceive of ever going anywhere without a camera. So far it has got me into trouble with the marketing manager of the hotel, worried that I was a paparazzi after her guests. Nice thinking, but firstly I was one of her guests, and secondly I would be completely unable to recognise a celebrity even if one were lying next to me on the next sun-lounger along. Subsequently it got me into trouble with security guard, at which point I called an extremely effusive and apologetic marketing manager.....

Hassles aside, the hotel is sensational. We have a roof terrace with a plunge pool and a fan, and a tree at eye level which is full of Bananaquits, various Hummingbirds, Carib Grackles and Lesser Antillean Beer-driking Bullfinches. It has also hosted a Scaly-breasted Thrasher, a Grey Kingbird, and a Grey Trembler. Broad-winged Hawks soar overhead, and out in the bay Frigatebirds wheel about. It is warm and muggy, with occasional rain showers clearing the air, and I am very happy. Lots of fresh fish is being eaten, and a great many rum-based cocktails are being drunk - it's important to support the local economy....

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Long distance twitching

I'm currently on an extended long-distance twitch, and I'm seeing loads and loads. I know I've been to Shetland a few times, and the Scillies too, but I never genuinely believed that offshore islands could be this good. This place is amazing, but I'm going to be writing descriptions for the next fifteen years, as almost every bird I see is a tick. It's warmer than St Mary's, and not as windy as Sumburgh, but other than that broadly similar. More frogs perhaps, but that would be about it.
Could almost be Unst

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Semipalmated not whollyboring

Actually it wasn't that bad, for instance it beats Short-toed Treecreeper hands down. Not sure what else it beats, but it was, er, educational. Yes, good for me, and thus well worth 220 miles and a good soaking. It was one of those birds that if you think you might have it, you don't. I picked at least half a dozen candidates, but when the right bird was found it was radiantly clear that I knew nothing. Same old issue, once you're on it, it's really easy. Finding it amongst the throng is an entirely different matter. Though mega-rare, I suspect that it is simply overlooked, I mean who in their right mind scans through high-tide roosts of Ringed Plovers? Somebody wanting to find a Semipalmated Plover probably. Well, hats off to whoever found this one, as although when you get on to the bird it is pretty damn obvious, it's extremely tricky when faced with a whole range of Ringos to go though. Reminiscent of looking through gulls. Not that bad obviously, but approaching it for sure.

I completely misread the weather. Wanstead was lovely and mild. And dry. Hayling Island was less mild, extremely windy, and very wet indeed. Happily Bradders turned up after a couple of hours bearing my previously forgotten waterproof trousers, but by that time the damage was mostly done, and in any event the biggest problem was having decided that going with just a T-shirt and no warm fleecy layer was a sensible plan. Which it wasn't, and by the end of the twitch I was shivering uncontrollably. As soon as I had clocked the bird, realised how semieasy it was (once somebody else had located it), I was out of there. Bradders decided to stay and get wetter, and as for Dick, oh dear. A big wuss I am afraid to say, and he had left some time previously. Naturally I called him to relay the good news, but he was too far back up the A3 by that time. Oops.

Today was the first opportunity I had had to go down there. On Shetland when the news broke at the end of last week, and then working all week in Glasgow. A huge rarity, and 800 miles and a week away. Luckily for me, and for my fellow Shetland grafters, it stayed, and we have now all seen it. Amazing talent all round wouldn't you say? Not sure about Marco mind, though he does go for absolutely everything these days, which means he was probably on Unst twitching the Cape May Warbler and missed out. We checked that garden.....

The hotel in Glasgow wasn't too bad, though was lacking in rare Yank waders.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Thing to slow down time needed

Do these exist? Didn't Hermione whatsherface have one in Harry Potter that allowed her to be in two places at once, doing two separate things. That's what I need, there is simply not enough time. I won't blather on about how much work I do etc, a lot of people have the same problem, perhaps even worse, but where does time go, as I seem not to be able to stop at the moment - there is just too much that I want to get done. Patch birding has taken a back seat, my camera gets little time, I haven't played lego with my kids for ages, and as for sitting around on a sofa chilling out - forget it!

I operate with to-do lists. They keep me going, and I am worried if I do not have one. These are typically two post-it notes stuck back to back, with tiny tiny writing on. During the working day, many things occur to me that I have failed to do, and they are feverishly scribbled down. You could argue that my mind isn't fully on the job, and that would be 100% true. Whilst I am always focussed, part of my brain is always reserved for me and things I want or need to get done. Hang on, sorry. That's better. I needed to look up hand-luggage information for an airline I haven't been on for a while. Typically, it is awful, which probably explains why I haven't been on them for ages. 10kg?! How am I supposed to manage with that paltry amount? Anyway, back to business, too much to do, and not enough time. I cut out TV a long time ago, how people in this country manage to watch an average of 4 HOURS PER DAY I simply have no idea. What a vacuous, innocuous, completely absurd waste of time. When instead you could spend it:

Yes, this is my life synthesized onto two sides of a 6cm square piece of paper. Tragic isn't it. A bit of packing, and a reminder to sweep the terrace and buy a wheelbarrow. Neither of which I have yet done. Hang on a sec'......Right, I feel much better now. Except that whilst I was sweeping, a mildly cathartic activity, I thought of several new things to add, which won't fit on the current list, so I've had to start a new one. Just so you know, before I scrumpled up the old one I made sure to cross off the sweeping - that's a very important part of the whole "feeling good about oneself" process. I have been known to realise that I've just done something which I forgot to write on the list in the first place, and so what would the normal reaction be? Get on with the next job? No, completely wrong. Write the already-completed task down on the list and cross if off with the same pen stroke. Perfect.

Anyway, you can see how productive I am simply by looking at the above photo. You can also see how boring it is, and how there is nothing fun on there at all. These are all chores, diversions I would rather not be bothered with. "Photograph nice birds at point blank range" is not on there. "Sort out entire cask of Whisky getting shipped to me" is not on there. "Have lovely long relaxing bath whilst drinking wine" is similarly not on there. There is a veritable list of nice things I would like to do that simply don't figure anywhere, as until there are 36 hours in every day, there is no time to do any of them. Do however watch this space next week....

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Leaving Shetland without the Big One

Shame that you can't book your weather prior to leaving on a rarity-finding trip. As expected, well, more or less, glass half empty and all that, it all kicked off after I left. Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll on Sunday afternoon in the Swinister Burn that I had searched on Sunday morning. Red-flanked Bluetail at Upper Voe on Sunday morning that we had checked on Saturday afternoon.... And the real kick in the nuts, a male Siberian Rubythroat on Fair Isle today, my first day back in the office. Maybe next time I should go for a month, but of course I can't. And in fact I don't want to. I should be grateful for the OBP and have done with it! On the whole twitching other people's birds is a whole lot easier. Got a car? Got a map? Got a lot of time and a bit of money? Job's a good 'un. This trip to Shetland was about finding stuff - with practically nobody there, if you don't go and look yourself you won't see anything. So that's what we did, we went and looked. And largely, as I have recounted, we failed. Not because we're useless, not because we didn't try, and not because we looked in the wrong places. But because rare birds are rare, and the same weather that might deliver them to Shetland's shores also makes finding them extremely difficult.

Saturday and Sunday were hard work. Driving winds, howling, horizontal rain. Not good birding weather, especially for eastern skulkers. Finding the OBP, on reflection, was nothing short of miraculous. Sunday was a little better, with more birds, in particular a new arrival of Thrushes, but with time against us we never managed it. I was able to find out about the Hornemann's at Sumburgh airport, about the Bluetail at Edinburgh airport. Inevitable. But that's the gamble, and you go in the knowledge of that. Is bird finding for me? Well, like I said, I can take it or leave it actually, but every now and again, why not? I can recommend it to all twitchers though, if all you do is follow the pager round the place, then you need to have a go yourself. You will appreciate it that much more when you know how bloody hard it is, how much luck is involved, and the amazing ratio of nothing to something. I've said it before, twitching is a mug's game. The obvious contradiction is that I have been known to twitch now and then, and will likely do so again. I crowed hugely when I hit 400 in the UK, but acknowledge fully that this does not make me an amazing birder in any way. I drove to a few places and saw a few birds that other people found.

But now that I've found a rare bird, I must be an amazing birder, right? Worth a few points on the scale? Hah, not by a long shot! But what if I'd found ten? 20? 50? Does that make me more worthy? Depends on who you ask. Some people put a lot of emphasis on that, others don't. If you ask me, I don't. Do what you enjoy. Twitching isn't wrong, just don't pretend that you're special because you've done a lot of it. Similarly, finding rare birds doesn't make you special either. I'm not saying those hardy souls who do a lot of that place themselves on any kind of pedestals, but if they did, that would be wrong too. Birding is birding, plain and simple. Do 100% of the one thing you want to do, or mix it up a little to keep it fresh. Twitch away, flog the local patch, or stick yourself on remote headlands at the right time of year. Spend all your time sea-watching, or devote yourself to taking photographs of Wheatears. As long as it about birds, that's enough. It's the best hobby ever. 

Check out this Shetland rarity. I saw 9, and am therefore amazing.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Shetland - days 2 and 3

The wifi in the flat died, what can I say? I know that daily updates were more or less required, but there was nothing that I could do about it. I'm currently holed up in my Sis's place in Edinburgh, and internet is back on the menu - so what happened? Well, we worked bloody hard is what happened, we flogged it, and although we didn't bag the big one, there was a pleasing result on day three. But first, day two, where we went up to Unst for the day. Lovely weather, but few birds. We snagged a Yellow-browed Warbler at Halligarth, but by far the best birds were the Snow Buntings - several large flocks, a couple probably over a hundred birds - some way from the uberflocks of a few weeks past, but assuming we saw distinct groups, likely over 400 birds - great sights, and great sounds. A really nice day birding, but obviously quiet. Late in the afternoon the wind died completely, a change was on the way

And boy did it change on our third day! Some time in the night it had all kicked off - charging south-easterlies with rain. Unpleasant, and really difficult to bird in. To try and outrun the rain spreading from the south, we headed north, which was partially successful. Lunna was pretty dead, but the plantation at Vidlin had a few Redwing, and Bradders flushed a Woodcock that Matt and I missed. Following Marco's advice that it had appeared to drop quite quickly, I headed up the hill to the next bit of cover, a house with some roses. Rather than walk up the owner's front drive, I skipped over the fence to skirt the edges of the property, and was immediately rewarded by a small bird moving all of two feet into the base of a bush. Coming at the bush from the far side, the bird went back to where it had started - interesting. Well, maybe. The brief glimpses had left me none the wiser, an impression of size and general colouration but that was it. I played it safe and radioed for reinforcements, and to their credit the guys came up immediately, all keen as mustard, even if it did turn out, as seemed likely, to be a false alarm. We converged, and.....nothing!!!  FFS! I stomped the base of the bush, and there was nothing at all! I had no idea what had happened, it hadn't flown or moved that I had seen, but whatever, it had gone. Difficult to know what to say, there had been a bird!

Mid-way through apologising for wasting peoples' time, Matt flushed it about 20 feet away. He and Bradders saw it disappear into the roses, and more importantly heard it call - OBP! Probably! Now we understood how it might have managed to sneak off! This species is a bugger at the best of times, and now we were faced with the challenge of pinning it down and nailing it in atrocious weather with heaps of dense cover. To cut a long story short, we managed it, with photos, but it took ages and I never even got a glimpse of it through my bins. Still, highly satisfying, and clearly a delayed reaction to the Double-decker that I had eaten the previous afternoon. It will come as no surprise that a four-pack made it into the boys' shopping basket that evening in Tesco's. Magic in an orange and purple wrapper.

The rest of the day was spent doing various site on north mainland. I finally managed to get a Great Spotted Woodpecker on my Shetland list, and we found another Yellow-browed Warbler at Busta House. A hundred or so Mealy Redpoll at Sullom, and quite a few Crossbills at most places we stopped at, and that was about the sum of it. OBP isn't a BB rare any more, but it's still a great bird to find, even if a fairly obvious candidate on Shetland at this time of year. I'm clearly not a great bird finder, and it's not what floats my particular boat, but even I admit that it was pretty exciting. The important thing is that it was a joint effort - we had all been flogging it, and we all contributed to it.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Shetland trials

First of all, let me say that it's great to be back - I love it up here. It's a wonderful place to be, and there is practically nobody around. The birding, as is fairly normal, has been hard work. So far all interesting-looking birds have turned out to be Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, but that's the name of the game up here. One minute you can be looking at Blackcap on a dry stone wall, the next bird that flits through your bins could be a sensation. Each morning starts with great excitement, and then you gradually get worn down throughout the day, such that on quiet days you can hardly bear to lift your bins again, knowing exactly what you won't be seeing. But when it's good......

Today was a quiet day for the most part. Little Bunting was the best of it until a I opened my first double decker of the holiday, whereupon an Isabelline Shrike and Citrine Wagtail appeared instantaneously. Three of our team needed the Wagtail, so the decision was easy, and off to Boddam we trotted. Like many rarities on Shetland, it showed superbly, and all five of us ended the day on a high. You will note that we are now five; we have acquired Marco from West Ham. Unbeknownst to all of us he was up on Orkney, gallivanting, and in the middle of the night boarded the ferry that Bradders, Nick and Matt were on. Apparently they were quite surprised to find him wandering around the MV Hrossey as it steamed into Lerwick, and I guess he was quite surprised to see them too.

The guys were kind enough not to find the big one whilst I was still sat at work in London, and so on Wednesday afternoon I set off the vast distance to City Airport for what I hoped would be a straightforward trip to Sumburgh. How wrong I was. I have yet to have a non-traumatic flight to Shetland - this time a huge delay on the London leg put the Shetland leg almost beyond reach, and so for a time I was looking at spending the night in Aberdeen. As it turned out, the Shetland flight was delayed too, and so I made it, but with minutes to spare. My suitcase, alas, did not, and as I type this on my second evening here, it is still in transit somewhere, though allegedly getting closer all the time. Extremely annoying, as it contains many things that I would like to have. Like pants.

Happily I was sensible enough to keep my bins on my person, as well as my camera, so birding has continued uninterrupted. So here are a few of the Wagtail. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?


Monday, 14 October 2013


It's only Monday, and I have nothing much to say. As usual there is no restraint, so this is a post of minor and miscellaneous items, including a great new joke I just thought of.

1) My new phone finally works just like my old phone, but is better in one key respect. The touchscreen can be used with gloves, you have to up the haptic transmission or some such gobbledegook. I have no idea if it works yet because before I thought to try it I packed my one remaining pair of gloves off to Shetland in the Braddersmobile. I join the guys on Wednesday night, so let's hope for a memorable trip with lots of haptism. And that the guys save up finding the big one for Thursday.

2) All my shirts are worn out and I am too tight to buy any more. Actually the problem is twofold. They are literally wearing out, especially around the collar and cuffs, but the other problem is that some of them are, shall we say, a little tight. Then again, many of them I bought when I started work around fifteen years ago, and I am a different person now. Perhaps two people.... I don't mind spending money, but I hate doing so on clothing, in particular work-related clothing, which is in my view money wasted. I am still able to look scruffy in nice expensive clothes, so what's the point? Other than to avoid the sad day when I have a stretch at work and my shirt cleaves in two, I cannot think of one. 

3) Here's the joke:
Q: How many birders does it take to change a long-life low-energy light bulb?
A: One, but he will have to do it every three months because they are A COMPLETE AND UTTER CON.
It's not very good, is it?

4) Apparently my reaction to badger news is called Compassion Fatigue, and is a known phenomenon. All the responses to my post have been very good, and indeed since I posted it I have probably received more badger-related tweets than ever before, so a great own goal there. The next big thing is going to be foxes by the looks of it. The Government, saviours of our countryside (for rich people who back them) and all-round nature-lovers, would appear to want to bring hunting with hounds back again. Marvellous. Seriously, when do I next get to vote? They'll be bringing back Poor Houses soon, and introducing tithes. Anyway, what we clearly need is an ageing rock star, an endless twitter campaign, and an e-petition. But then we might all forget about the badgers. A tricky one. As far I know, Badgers don't shred my rubbish bin and shit on my front path, so I'm going to vote for them in the next election. I'm sorry if that means all the foxes have to die. Perhaps they could form a coalition and ease my conscience?

5) Per my stats - the same stats that appear to go back to 2007 - this blog that I started in 2009 has now seen precisely 1000 posts. This is probably one of the worst ever, but believe me when I say that it becomes a lot more difficult the longer you carry on. During these thousand posts I have, I hope, entertained, and perhaps occasionally remained sufficiently serious to have made people think a little. I also know for a fact I have annoyed a few people; this is always easy, and comes very naturally. My personality, a complex mix of warmth, idiocy, arrogance and intolerance, cannot help but shine through. There is a certain amount of exaggeration of course, a certain amount of playing to the camera, but ultimately I am what I am, and I write what I write. And as I have always said, if you treat my writing entirely seriously, then that only makes one of us. So I hope to continue in both directions, lest I get bored, and on balance there is still probably more good than bad, more entertainment than ranting and moaning, and more smiles than frowns. Or at least that's the general idea.

And finally, no blog post would be complete without a nice photo. Sorry, image, what was I thinking? Clearly in a post so littered with filler and padding it would be very wrong of me to post one that was in any way relevant to the subject matter, so here is one that bears no relation to anything at all. I've entitled it "A work in progress", mainly because it is a work in progress, and there is still work to be done. Just like this blog. I reckon I'm getting somewhere with the photo though.

A work in progress

Yet more banjos

Enjoyed another great gig last night, really pleased I nabbed a ticket all those months ago. I have no defence, I just happen to like music that has banjos in it. There are worse crimes - photo critique for instance. It's always dangerous to make definitive plans for October, but I think I got away with it. The one bird I needed this past weekend, a Pied Wheatear, was on a far-away island and then got itself eaten by a Sparrowhawk before I could even contemplate how to get there. Ideal in many respects, especially for the Sprawk one supposes.

A nice quiet concert for a change, and I got home without my ears ringing, unlike most other things I've been to this year. A lovely voice, smart lyrics, fairly sassy in person, though she did say she loved London a few too many times - to a big cheer every time of course. Just about enough material to get through it, but she's only 24 with a few albums under her belt, only one of which has hit the mainstream. Or my definition of mainstream anyway - Same Trailer Different Park - test it out today, even if you think you don't like banjos. Slight issue with a guy yelling "Texas" as loudly as he could in many quiet bits, as well as some dude behind me shouty-singing every lyric of every song, and filming himself doing it - can't wait for that to hit Youtube. Still, most enjoyable, and twenty quid well spent, and not forgetting the two Essex ticks as well - all days should be like yesterday.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Getting ready for Shetland

I spent this morning practising for Shetland by standing around in heavy rain and wind getting soaked through for the sake of some birds that are very slightly different from other birds. It was the kind of conditions that in normal circumstances I probably would have stayed at home, but a good dose of cabin fever yesterday and the prospect of an Essex tick dragged me out nonetheless. The four Parrot Crossbills at Gunner's Park showed superbly for those that could bear it, but sometimes I have to wonder what the hell we all do it for. Plenty of familiar faces - James L hiding under a tree, a semi-drowned Rich B, Harry and Barry (no Larry), and Kent Barry. The birds were in a pine no bigger than a Selfridge's Christmas Tree, and looking as damp and miserable as their admirers. Two males, and two females - probably, I only got a good look at one of these, the other remained mostly hidden. I subjected the camera to the elements but I probably shouldn't have bothered - a couple of record shots below. It's still drying out now and I've had to peel all the neoprene off to allow the moisture to escape, in other words a total pain in the backside for close to no reward.

Still, the photos are better than the ones I got of Yellow-browed Warbler at Cudmore Grove on East Mersea this afternoon, which I've posted below. Didn't take single one, but got lovely views of one of the birds, whilst the other remains a heard only. I've been wanting to see YBW in Essex for a long time - they've always eluded me, whereas Pallas's hasn't. Clearly that's the wrong way around, but they're both done now. Met Adrian, Tony and a couple of others and wandered around in circles for a few hours before finally connecting and getting decent views. Managed to dry out at the same time, so all is well that ends well, and I made it back to the car before it started up again. As I approached Southend again it appeared to be brightening up, and I mused briefly about going back and trying the Crossbills again, but quickly decided against it. I have things to do tonight, involving heading off to the Empire at Shepherd's Bush for what I hope will be a quality gig. I've been listening to "Same Trailer, Different Park" by Kacey Musgraves almost constantly since Bob Harris played her on Radio 2 a few months ago, and I still like it - so tonight is going to be ace.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Stop badgering me

I signed the badger petition. I complained to my MP. I vowed to use my vote to attempt to kick this lot out at the next possible opportunity. I declined to dress up in a badger suit and march past Westminster, so it is true to say that I have not done everything I possibly could to help save the badgers. Oh, and I didn't completely trash one of my own hit songs by re-releasing it with every second word replaced by the word badger. Sorry about that, I am deeply uncommitted.

However despite my activism shortcomings, I actually like badgers. Sometimes they even guest on this blog, though you wouldn't be able to tell. I remember being thrilled when I saw my first unflattened one for the first time in Devon whilst looking for Cirl Buntings. A few weeks ago our whole family got to see two together in a friend's back garden, as they feasted on the remains of some cattle that had mysteriously died. It was a real treat, but unfortunately with our leading politicians in the pockets of landowners (mainly because they are landowners), we may not get the pleasure for a great deal longer. I am sure you all know about the trial cull being carried out in the south-west. This pilot is designed to remove a high percentage of the badgers in two areas, some 5000 animals. Except they don't know how many badgers live there, so they're basically making it up. The whole thing is based on bad science, is being badly carried out (pesky badgers digging up and moving goalposts apparently, rather than gross incompetence from those involved in the cull and their political masters). I'm not going to drill into the sheer stupidity of the plan, and the hapless manner it is being carried out in. Suffice it to say that the evidence doesn't add up, it is expensive, largely ineffectual, and it is deeply unpopular. And Owen Paterson is a complete cretin (this with or without the badger cull). The badger petition now has the highest ever number of signatories of any petition ever released onto the government's website, and unsurprisingly is being completely ignored.

But here's the rub. I'm fed up with hearing about it. Fed up with it being shoved down my throat. Fed up with the tweets, fed up with the news. What's that quote? All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing? Something along those lines anyway, so I'm feeling very bad for now feeling more or less ambivalent towards the whole issue. I'm as likely these days to swear when I see yet another badger-related missive as I am to start thinking dark thoughts about what I would like to do to DEFRA. My point is this - on the one hand there is a view, and I think a correct view, that the government are on the run on this issue. Extensions are being applied for, and ridiculous statements being made about this being the fault of the badgers make this very clear. On the other hand, if you over-do it, if you go on about things too much, you not only lose your effectiveness, but you also turn people off. Like going on about Tropicbirds, to use a hypothetical example. And that I think is what has happened to me with the badgers. Yes, the government are acting very undemocratically, yes they're a bunch of self-serving, self-interested and pompous idiots, yes it is very cruel on the animals, but at the same time, for fuck's sake, will people please stop going on about bloody badgers every five minutes as it is getting on my nerves. Am I alone in this? Find new ways to fight the issue, as if I have to read another George Monbiot article on this topic I might up sticks and move to Syria. Hasn't been in the news much lately, so I'm guessing everything's fine again.

Monday, 7 October 2013

West Wales for a Wheatear

I am weak. Very weak. Almost as weak as Bradders who hot-footed it down to the Thames for a Guillemot he professed to having little interest in.... But it was a Wheatear, and therefore a worthy bird. Did I recently blog about it being pale? Sandy? Bo-ring? No, I don't remember that, all I know is that now the drive to the ends of the earth is over and done, I am a very happy bunny indeed. From looking at a few photos online, I had suspected that the bird would be relatively tame - most vagrant Wheatears I've seen in this country have been - i.e., a handful of Desert Wheatears. I hoped that this one would be the same. But first there was the matter of 300 odd miles.

Interminable. Not content with the southern section of the M25, I then had to drive the entire length of the M4, and then head out west some more. Reading. Swindon. Bristol. Newport. Cardiff. Bridgend. Port Talbot. Neath. Swansea. Llanelli. Carmarthen. Every flipping city in Wales except Aberystwyth it seemed. The roads got smaller and smaller until they turned into a one-lane track, which then stopped altogether. In golden sunshine, Nick and I emerged from the car, blinking in the bright light. Had we really arrived? With only sea in front of us, it appeared we had.

The bird was immediately visible on a path in front of us once we had climbed the short slope. Gloriously pale. Gloriously sandy.  And Gloriously confiding. Oh yes, this was one of these birds, as I had surmised. With a gentle breeze and the sound of seals on the beach, and the warm sun on my face, I flopped gratefully onto the short grass and waited. It didn't take long - the bird favoured an area that had at one point during the week been laced with mealworms. Although none were left, the thought that a few may have been overlooked was enough to keep my little eastern friend coming back to check regularly. What a great bird, when it came to within about 15 feet I knew that I would have come even further for it and still been happy. A few walkers, a few seal admirers, but nobody stayed for long, and for the most part Nick and I enjoyed the bird with just one other guy. Compare that with a twitch in the south-east - yet more rationale for putting a massive distance between us and crowd hysteria. The Grosbeak was the same, as was the Harlequin. Remote headlands with rare birds on them are basically win win.


This is a bog standard Wheatear for comparative purposes.

The journey back took even longer than the journey there. And this despite my being completely profligate with fuel consumption in order to get us home as soon as possible. So much so that extreme guilt overcame me this afternoon, and I nursed almost 53mpg out of it on the way back from another pale bird in Suffolk.....

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Latest twitch isa beautiful success

I'm very tired, I had no idea that west Wales was quite so far away, but it was a great decision to go. Another species not dipped - I much prefer the shoe-ins on the whole. But before I continue, today was a two tick day. Yes that's right people, there was another bird! Perhaps not quite as rare as Isabelline Wheatear, but equally tricky to catch up London. I have seen my first Thames Auk, a Guillemot off Crossness this morning, before pointing the car westwards. Usually I expect lost seabirds in the river to be looking pretty sorry for themselves, but this little fella seemed pretty chipper all things considered, and has spent up to a week holidaying between Waterloo and Barking. Completely unable to do anything in the week, I am grateful to John and the gang for pinning it down on their patch. Guillemot is my 250th species in London, a landmark of sorts, though meaningless for the most part.

A short five hours later I found myself standing looking at Skomer. And this:

More later...............

Friday, 4 October 2013

Variations on a theme

Some birds are better than others, fact. I'm currently contemplating going to see an Isabelline Wheatear in west Wales. Notwithstanding the fact that it's a type of Wheatear, and thus excellent, when I saw the photos of the bird I was slightly underwhelmed. It looks like a pale Wheatear, which I suppose it is, but what I mean by that is that it looks remarkably similar to the common Northern Wheatear, just paler. Sandier. Is that worth nine hours in the car? I mean, it's not a Little Green Bee-eater is it? The typical agonising I always go through got me thinking about what birds I really regret going to see, not because of the twitching experience, for instance my awful trip to see the Lesser Kestrel near Minsmere, but because the birds were, well, boring.

Top of this list without a shadow of a doubt is Short-toed Treecreeper. Why did I do this? I spend probably a whole day chanting "I will not go" repeatedly, and then went the following day. Massively underwhelming. A Treecreeper that unless it made a noise, or you studied a small part of it on the back of your camera, looked identical to a normal Treecreeper. Only 70 miles away, but crushingly and mind-bogglingly boring. Completely absurd that I went, especially when I said I wouldn't, but I guess that's me all over. What Great Snipe?

Yes, I saw it. You knew I would go right? Of course. So is the Great Snipe a candidate for one of these underwhelming birds? Like the Treecreeper, I had decided I wasn't going and then changed my mind, but is that where the similarity ends? I came away glad that I had been, but that was due to the experience of observing the bird at extremely close quarters, rather than the bird being anything particularly stonking. Basically a Snipe. A shade bigger, but 'Great'? I was hoping for a whopper, a monumentally huge Snipe! Like a chicken, but with a sword for a beak. But no, a dumpy wader, somewhere between a Woodcock and a Snipe, and decidedly at the Snipe end of that scale. Having seen it, I wondered about what previous attempts at Great Snipe ticking might have led to. A flight view of something Snipe-shaped with a bit of white on the tail, probably in murky conditions on a wind-swept island up to my knees in a morass. Any other individual Great Snipe but this one, and it would have made the list of duffers.

What about Rosefinch? I've seen a few now, and whilst they do a nice little whistle, they're staggeringly boring. I might get up to see one in Wanstead, but nowhere else. Every single one I've seen has been a brown one. Basically a sparrow, near enough as makes no difference. Small, boring, brown. But at one time a tick, thus amazing. No more. I've even got one on my London list, a rare bird here, but still dull as ditch water.

What about birds that people have invented in order to get more ticks? I've seen a few of these now, birds like Iberian Chiffchaff, Siberian Stonechat, and Parrot Crossbill. A Chiffchaff that was a shade brighter and sang a different song, a Stonechat that was a bit plainer than normal, and a Crossbill with a chunky beak. Well, what can you say? They all count, they all count, and clearly someone like me who is so defined by their UK list had to go and see them all. Err, why did I do that exactly? I have no idea. Then again if I refused to go for dull birds my list would be sitting at around 250 I suppose. Listing is silly. Short-billed Dowitcher? So similar to Long-billed Dowitcher that the two get confused even in the US where they come from? You betcha - a great day out where I first scored the Baillon's Crake, which had the good grace to at least look different, and then a long drive to Dorset.

What about the ones I've yet to see? Greater Yellowlegs aka 99% Greenshank (sometimes even 100%!), Solitary Sandpiper aka 99% Green Sandpiper. Pallid Swift? Pacific Diver? Black Duck? And my most keenly anticipated lifer, American Coot! Will somebody please shoot me if one turns up, it will be for the best and save me the agonising.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Shetland calling

Shetland is almost within touching distance. Although I've only got four days on, I'm very excited. We're going late, very late, which means one of two things. One, a big fat nothing. Or two, MONSTER! As I understand it there is very little in between once you hit the third week of October, yet that is what we are doing. I very nearly wasn't doing anything this year - I already declined a trip to Scilly with the boys as I knew I was going to be extremely busy at work, and until only a few weeks ago there were no Shetland plans either. I wasn't too bothered, I'd achieved my two birding goals already, namely surpassing the enormous total that 400 BOU is, and smashing, so far by 2, my patch record of 113. Anything else would be a bonus I figured, and indeed the Roller, Bridled Tern and Great Snipe have been exactly that. I need to be in Scotland anyway around this time of year anyway, so why not? I'll take the camera, and if there are no birds to either chase or find, then I'll go and find some Twite or something, and be perfectly content.

As I alluded to here, Shetland has gone downhill in my estimation ever since my first sublime trip. By the end of day one, I was two ticks to the good - a mega from the east, Sykes' Warbler, and one from the west, Swainson's Thrush. Another four lifers followed, and it was never as good again. Not that Shetland has stopped getting the big ones, it's just that my weeks there have stopped coinciding with them. And then of course the birds have started turning up in the South-east. I've already been to Shetland once this year, for the Pine Grosbeak, and that was so good that frankly I had made up my mind to save my cash for trips like that, rather than blow it all in the hope that I might strike it lucky. But then I realised that made me into a chequebook birder, and I can't be having that. No, I will go to Shetland and see what happens. Happily Bradders has purchased some wellies, so I am excused Iris duties this year, and will simply stand to one side and observe whilst sending him in up to his armpits.. He will then flush something and say "did you see that, it was really rare!!", and I will say "yes, what was it?" and he will say "it was a [insert name of really rare bird here]" and I will go "excellent!" and tick it off in my little notepad. Simples. What could possibly go wrong? Here's a Lancy, definitely not hoping for one of these....